Processes such as agile and stage-gating may work for your business, but the idea is more important than the development process, say these experts.
“Agile” and “stage-gating” may be the business buzzwords of the moment, but these processes aren't the only way to innovate; the best framework for your company depends on its sector, size and idea.
"These processes actually have more in common than differences," explains Elizabeth Real, the European chief executive of consultancy, WhatIf. "Each one of these flavours of the month were developed
for a very specific purpose."
Agile, for example, was developed to help tech engineers and coders test as they went, but it has since been repurposed for creating consumer products, she adds.
Agile vs stage gating
The idea behind agile, Ms Real says, is to take possible ideas and experiment with them in an iterative way, running many small trials or A/B tests at the same time to see which gets the best results.
"Basically, you get to a point where you weed out ideas that aren't strong enough until you find something that works for you," she says. "What's nice about agile, and what I think does work, is that pretty much any idea can be improved if you learn enough about it and you stay true enough to the user experience.”
Stage-gating, or phase-gating, is when the testing and design process is broken up into different parts, separated by "gates": points at which decisions about how or whether to go forward are made.
"Stage-gating is a simple thing," says David Walker, chief executive of consultancy, Happen. "You have a funnel at the top and certain decision points throughout that process.
“As an approach, it's logical – you can't invest in all ideas; some will succeed and some won't. You use that framework of developing a rough concept and seeing whether there's a market opportunity, and then you sign off the next piece of time or investment pursuing it."
Which is best?
Don't start by picking a process. Instead, suggest Mr Walker, start by having a clear idea of your end goal, whether it's protecting your existing market, moving into a new one, or creating an entirely new product.
"You have to start with what you’re trying to achieve," he explains. “That’s the most important thing.
“You have all these different types of processes, and new labels and jargon appear every few years, but what an innovation process is roughly trying to do is put a framework around managing something where there are a lot of unknowns."
Heavy, complex processes slow innovation down
David Walker, Happen
Mr Walker adds that lighter-touch frameworks such as agile are helpful if you want to test multiple ideas at once, as quickly as possible. "These ‘lighter’ processes are designed to help you do very fast cycles of testing and learning because what you're [often] doing
is testing hypotheses and developing a few things in parallel.”
It’s also about finding out what might happen before you invest in an army of coders to develop something over a long period of time,
Ms Real also says that making use of agile's science experiment-style of testing doesn't require you to be wedded to the whole agile process because it's simply about having a willingness to learn and test all ideas.
That willingness to test ideas is common among great entrepreneurs and innovators, she notes. “They're pretty much always convinced that their idea is not good enough and they’re almost always trying to disprove themselves."
Vision is more important than the tool
That works on smaller teams, when the person making the final decision is part of the innovation process, but larger companies often turn to stage-gating because the executive making the final call isn't the person doing the research and testing. They might be several people removed.
This leads to a more rigid process, Mr Walker says: "It's one of the reasons why larger organisations are so slow at innovation, because there are such high hurdles for things to get started.”
But even if your company must opt for a more rigid process, he stresses again that it's best to use the lightest touch possible: "The trick is to keep it as light as possible – the minimum process required to work in the organisation.
"Heavy, complex processes slow innovation down and, anecdotally, I’ve not seen much evidence to suggest that they work any better."
Ms Real agrees; focusing too much on the style or process of innovation is a mistake. "People idolise [agile], but it's like going to the Sistine Chapel and asking to see the paint brushes," she says.
"You've missed the point; it's just a tool – the point is the greater vision that you have for the business.”