How to structure the stages in your stage gate process to build quality projects

24 Apr 2023


In your stage gate process, do your stages work as well as your gates? With many of my clients, much of my work focuses on cleaning up the gates. While decisions are made at the gates, it’s within the stages where the work is done. Bob Cooper’s Winning at New Products describes a stage as “a set of prescribed, cross -functional and parallel activities” that “gathers enough information needed to move the project to the next gate”.  Not only should the activities gather “enough information” but also the right information.  A poor-quality stage design will contribute to your risky products making it through gates they shouldn’t, or too much work being done too early within the process.

Here are some key activities you need in each stage to ensure you focus your resources on the best quality projects.

Stage 0. Discovery / Ideation – building your ideas pool
In this initial stage, it is crucial to have a large pool of good ideas. No amount of process improvement can make up for a lack of them. A large pool is needed at the beginning of the process because ideas are culled at each subsequent gate. It is also important that the pool is topped up with new ideas as older ones are killed and discontinued at various gates during the stage gate process. Resist the temptation to filter the ideas before submitting to the stage and gate process. 

Stage 1. Scoping – preparing the preliminary business analysis
The aim of this stage is to gather technical and market information quickly, at low cost, to develop a brief financial and business analysis to be presented at gate two. This is a preliminary business case, based on technical and market estimates.  Activities in this stage are mainly desk-based and relatively inexpensive. Ideally, this stage is short – less than one calendar month in duration, and ten to twenty person-days for a major project.  While the work is a ‘light touch’, the quality of work remains critical. 

Stage 2. Building the Business Case – the detailed investigation
This next stage involves a detailed investigation to define the product and verify the attractiveness of the project to the business. Inputs include:

This stage builds detail into the market, customer and competitive analyses that were carried out in the scoping.  Further detail is also built into the technical assessment to address questions on feasibility and risks.

The identified customer needs are used to define a product solution that is technically and economically feasible. This analysis can also include manufacturability, supply, cost of manufacture and investment. A comprehensive plan of required legal, patent, and regulatory work to be undertaken is also developed. The detailed business and financial analyses performed in this stage are used to justify the business case. This is where major assumptions are checked and a risk assessment performed.

The result is the business case for the project, including the product definition, the financial and business project definition, and the detailed project plan.

Stage 3. Development – creating the product prototype
In this stage, the product is developed to create a prototype for testing.

Although this stage is focused on technical work, marketing and operation activities continue in parallel. Activities will also include customer validation loops. The results of these activities inform the detailed plans for the next stage – testing and validation. This is also the stage where any remaining regulatory, legal, or patent issues are resolved.

The deliverables from the development stage are:

Often when working with clients, I have found significant benefits are gained by incorporating scenario plans within this stage.  For that reason, Oliver Wight recommends that scenario planning is a must meet criteria for the next gate, not just a ‘nice to have’.  By working up ‘what if’ scenarios for key assumptions such as customer uptake, and then developing contingency plans to deal with the scenarios, execution teams know precisely what to do when sales of the new product are significantly more or less than originally planned.

Stage 4. Testing and Validation – last tests before launch
The product, production process, customer acceptance and economics of the project are all validated in this stage. Activities may include further testing in-house under controlled conditions, but also field trials with users under use-conditions. These trials establish purchase intent and customer reactions to the product.

Pilot-phase production testing is also carried out to prove the processes and determine or refine production costs and throughputs. A sales trial to limited customers allows estimation of market share and revenues.

The results of these trials are used to update and revise the business and financial plans with new revenue and cost data. If the outcome of these updates is negative, the project returns to stage three.

Stage 5. Launch – the start of production and sales
In this stage, the market launch and operations plans are implemented. Production equipment is installed and commissioned, and sales begin.

Post Launch Review
In my experience, the least well-performed stage is the post launch review. It’s easy to think that once sales start the development project is over. But skipping the post launch review is a missed opportunity. This stage is about team accountability and examines which project steps were done well and which were not.

The post launch review is a retrospective analysis of the project and product performance. Comparing the latest data, including costs and revenues, with earlier projections during development and presented at the gates, provides the basis for continuous improvement.

The lessons learnt within this stage must form feedback into the next projects making their way through the gate process.  The post launch review is the difference between a process that ‘hopes we will hit the big one, one day’ to walking a journey that delivers sustainable growth through innovation.

Matching stages to project complexity
It’s valuable to understand that the structure of your stage gate process can be flexible.  Not all projects require five gates.  For simple changes to products, a three-gate process is perfectly suitable.  Highly technical projects may require a higher tolerance of risk than a normal project, otherwise none of those project types would make it through the gates.

Stages and gates – both crucial to the new product development process
To summarize, while gates get a lot of attention, well-designed stages are just as important for successful projects. Sound decisions at the gates are only possible when based on robust, reliable outcomes from each stage.


Oliver Wight has been helping companies improve their new product development speed to market and decision-making processes effectively and sustainably for over 50 years. Get in touch with us here to find out how we can help you.

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