The 5 Most Common Mistakes Made When Implementing Stage-Gate

A few tips for spotting and correcting the five mistakes that can quickly plague a Stage-Gate implementation.

Congratulations! You’ve just completed a successful Stage-Gate® implementation. We know it was a lot of hard work; you should be proud of the progress you and your team have made.

Unfortunately, not every organization’s Stage-Gate implementation goes off without a hitch. There are, indeed, some common pitfalls that can quickly undermine an implementation at any stage in the process. And even though Stage-Gate, as a practice, has been around for over 30 years, you would think that people would have perfected the implementation process by now. Sadly enough, and in spite of even the most well-intentioned efforts, we tend to see the same mistakes being made over and over again. (Though, if you’ve followed the steps we laid out in our blog series meticulously, you’re definitely off to a great start!)

So, to help you avoid falling into this trap entirely, we’ve compiled a list of the top five mistakes that can plague your Stage-Gate implementation from the very start. Be sure to spot them early on and course correct as quickly as possible to ensure your implementation gets back on track.

1. Your process was developed in a vacuum

What this means

There are two primary culprits at play here: either you attempted to launch this effort as a one-(wo)man show, without the aid of a task force to support you, or you assembled a task force but limited all feedback and decision-making to the members of the task force itself.

How to fix it

As we’ve clearly demonstrated, implementing Stage-Gate is a complex process that involves support, input, and decision-making at all levels within your organization. This includes:

• Studying past projects to determine reasons for failure and/or sub-par results;
• Engaging key stakeholders and soon-to-be “power users” across various business functions early on for their ideas, opinions, and input;
• Taking a closer look at how other companies, similar to yours, have implemented Stage-Gate to learn best practices — as well as their own pitfalls — around stages, gates, criteria, deliverables, and other activities critical to implementation; and
• Seeking feedback during each round of the Stage-Gate design process.

The important thing to note is that implementing Stage-Gate is not just about implementing a new process; it’s about creating a new process that not only will drive incredible results for your organization but will also, by soliciting buy-in throughout the development process, be widely adopted once implemented. Operating in a vacuum will do the opposite.

2. Your process has no “teeth”

What this means

You went down the path of implementing Stage-Gate to improve your project management and product development process, oftentimes with the goal of creating hard-and-fast criteria for determining which are the “best” projects that warrant resourcing to see them through. However, if you’ve built a Stage-Gate process that doesn’t weed out the proverbial “good” from the “bad,” you end up right back at square one: resources are spread too thin and projects quickly clog up the development pipeline.

How to fix it

Stage-Gate, in and of itself, is your best remedy. That is, if applied correctly. As part of your implementation, be crystal clear about what deliverables are required at each gate. This information is critical, as it will equip decision-makers (aka, “gatekeepers”) with the information to assess whether a project at that stage should be “killed” or given the green light to move forward. Oftentimes the reason why this part of the process fails is because gate criteria — in other words, the key information that determines whether a project can actually move from one phase to another — were not clearly defined from the very start or are not being acted upon by in a consistent manner. Giving your process clear rules that everyone must adhere to is the best and only way to make your Stage-Gate implementation operate flawlessly. Anything less will simply lead to an exercise in “rubber stamping” that feels wishy-washy at best.

"Too often, project review meetings end with a rather vague decision. Ask any three people who attended the meeting about what decisions were made, and you’re likely to hear three different answers. Thus, gates must have clearly articulated outputs. Outputs are the results of the gate meeting and include a decision...and a path forward. The decision cannot be to ‘defer the decision."

– Robert G. Cooper, Winning at New Products


3. Communication and training are afterthoughts

What this means

You’ve unintentionally focused all of your time and effort on implementing the nuts and bolts of Stage-Gate without thinking about what comes after it has actually been implemented (i.e. onboarding the organization onto the new process). Or, rather, as other priorities kept popping up, you continued to push this off, thinking that you’d merely “deal with it” at a later time. The problem: when the “right time” to deal with it finally rolls around, you’re already way behind.

How to fix it

One of the most important parts of the implementation process is onboarding and user adoption.  Both constant communication and training are vital for making this part of your Stage-Gate implementation a success. Not only do you have to constantly remind people that a new process is rolling out across the organization, but you must take every opportunity to help people learn the process and eventually embrace it with open arms. It’s a big change; it will take time for people to adjust. However, with the right ongoing communication and training in place, you can ease them over this learning curve. As you do this, there are few things to avoid:

• Only providing training to the “main” people involved in the process;
• Not training senior executives — your key stakeholders — so that they can learn the vocabulary associated with Stage-Gate and understand how it plays a role in the organization’s day-to-day operations;
• Creating overly complex documentation that overwhelms users on the first page and/or where users have a hard time finding the information and answers they need; and
• Not creating cheat sheets and other “lightweight” user materials that can help remind users about the stage and gate criteria (and beyond).
Finally, it’s absolutely critical that you and your task force take command of communication and training from start-to-finish. We’ve seen too many instances where the baton is passed to the first wave of trainees to do the rest of the legwork. This is a recipe for disaster. Those trainees are new to process, which means, as they begin to share their knowledge with others, they may deviate from the standardized training you created or, even worse, beginning instilling bad habits and mistakes that can undo all your hard work before you know it.


4. Not allocating enough resources

What this means

It should be pretty clear by now that Stage-Gate isn’t something that just happens. It requires a lot of hard work, cross-functional collaboration, and continued communication for it to succeed. If you don’t put in the necessary resources upfront and throughout the entire implementation process, both in terms of manpower and budget, your organization will have a much longer road to travel before reaping the full benefits of Stage-Gate.

How to fix it

There are many ways to address these resourcing issues. Here are three easy fixes:

• Make sure your task force is committed to the big task at hand from the very start — and not treating this work as simply a “side job” in addition to their day-to-day activities. 
• Be sure to set aside sufficient budget for communication and training for the entire organization (not just key stakeholders and soon-to-be “power users”).
• Don’t forget to solicit feedback from across the organization — beyond your task force — and take note to learn lessons about why projects failed in the past; the more you learn from the people who will ultimately use and benefit from your new Stage-Gate process, the better you can create a process that addresses their needs and expectations.


5. You haven’t identified initiative leaders

What this means

We’ve already talked at length about the important role that senior leadership plays in driving a Stage-Gate implementation forward. As Cooper puts it: “By providing the weight necessary to expedite tasks...and by demonstrating that they actively use the newly implemented process ...they broadcast the importance of the initiative to the rest of the organization.” This couldn’t be any truer. Unfortunately, it’s very easy for senior leaders to take a back seat in the process and let the task force take the lead. The problem here is that it makes it harder for you to have someone who can serve as the “face” of the initiative, someone who can champion the initiative throughout its development and after it has been implemented.

How to fix it

As a starting point, be sure to identify one or two very senior people in your organization who can clearly express why such an initiative is so important for your company at this time. These are the people who will be your task force’s biggest cheerleaders and supporters throughout the implementation process. However, keep in mind that these people will not be in the day-to-day weeds of this initiative, so you’ll need to identify a “process manager” who can lead operations straight through to implementation. This person will be responsible for:

• Leading the end-to-end implementation effort across the organization, including making ongoing process improvements both pre- and post-implementation;
• Serving as a central hub for gathering and consolidating feedback from key stakeholders;
• Developing and maintaining process documentation (i.e. user manuals, “cheat sheets”);
• Tracking projects through the new process and measuring performance and results;
• Seeking out new tools for project and product management, liaising closely with the IT team to implement new solutions on an ongoing basis; and
• Promoting the new process whenever possible as a means of seeking buy-in from key stakeholders and driving organization-wide adoption.

"No process, no matter how good and how logical, ever implemented itself. It needs someone to make it happen."

– Robert G. Cooper, Winning at New Products

Stage-Gate® is a registered trademark of Stage-Gate Inc.