Skunk Works Produce Change

Tasked with outcomes sought, a small group of the most creative thinkers can bring about rapid innovation.
by | June 8, 2011

Babak Armajani

Babak Armajani was a Governing contributor. He was the chair for the Public Strategies Group, where he and his partners focused on transforming bureaucracies into customer-focused enterprises.

Wikipedia defines "skunk works" as a "group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced [ideas]." Its origins are attributed to Lockheed Martin, which, at the request of the military, rapidly designed a jet fighter during World War II.

These days many governments have need of some sort of mechanism for rapid, "out of the box" innovation. In my company's work with governments around the country, I have seen the skunk works mechanism reap big dividends.

My most recent column, Innovation's Hurdles, enumerated many of the cultural reasons why "the system" resists change and innovation. I argued that strong messages put out by bureaucratic systems hamper innovation. Messages like:

  • Do what is familiar, this is no time to be thinking differently
  • Put all the resources into the status quo
  • The burden of irrefutable proof is on the innovation
  • We are better off sticking with the old ways unless we can get everyone to agree on a new approach
  • Let sleeping dogs lie

The skunk works idea is to sequester a small group of the most creative thinkers in your organization and task them with the outcomes you seek -- be it better results, cost savings or both.

So, how is this different from the usual committee? The five unwritten messages of resistance listed above provide the key.

First, when chartering a skunk works group, lay out specific outcomes and any necessary limitations on their work. Other than such limitations, ask them not to make judgments about what will be administratively or politically acceptable. Tell them to be bold and turn them loose. This will free them from the familiarity message.

Second, don't ask participants in the skunk works to do this work alongside their regular job. The regular job will take over every time. Instead, assign participants to the skunk works for a specific period of time or for specific days of the week. Overtly free them from all regular job responsibilities during this time, and make sure that they do not go to skunk works as a "representative" of their work group, but rather as a strategic agent. This will liberate them from the tendency of the system to make sure all time and money are invested in the status quo.

At the time you charter the skunk works, but before they begin their work, charter another small group to come up with the arguments for maintaining the status quo. Subject their burden of proof to the same standards you will use in judging the skunk works plans. Ask the skunk works people to come up with simple, fast ways to test their hypotheses in case you are doubtful about their efficacy. This will equalize the burden of proof.

Next, set up a panel of key people in your organization to critique the output of the skunk works. You can ask the skunk works to do further development in areas where you feel the critiques are valid. But don't give the critique group a veto. Change takes leadership. That means that if you agree with the ideas of the skunk works, you will have to tell those who object: "This is where we are going. I need your help to get there. Get on board." This will provide a legitimate way to improve skunk work ideas without abdicating leadership through the "everyone has to agree" approach.

Finally, keep the organization informed about the process. Don't rely exclusively on the chain of command for this communication. Use your intranet, newsletter, staff meetings and other such approaches to foster two-way communication about your charge to the skunk works and, later, about their recommendations. However, it will work best if you let the skunk works complete the development of their ideas before sharing with others. The dogs are not going to sleep through major change. Transparency is your best treatment of a barking dog.

These approaches will help your skunk works be "unhampered by bureaucracy" as the Wikipedia definition suggests.

Some government organizations that deploy skunk works also deliberately create a culture within the skunk works that is closer to that which they would like for the entire organization's culture. Skunk works often have their own space away from regular offices, they use a different language, and they have different practices. One group my company worked with had a 15-minute "check-in" for all hands at the end of every day where participants shared something they learned that day. One federal agency avoided private offices or cubicles in its skunk works space because it was seeking to break down silos in the organization. Workers "floated" from area to area instead. There were many conference rooms of different sizes and configuration. Along the way, workers picked up ideas and information from fellow skunks they might otherwise never have experienced.

In these ways, skunk works can help deliver what Gandhi implored: "Be the change you seek to bring about."


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