To Skunk or Not to Skunk?

Posted on: February 6th, 2015 - Written by: Tom Metz

Most American adults have heard the term skunk works at some point in their lives; perhaps you have even used the term in conversation or in business discussions. Today we would like to take a look at where skunk works came from, what it actually means, and how it relates to your business.

To Skunk or Not to Skunk?The phrase can be traced back to the 40s, when Lockheed Aircraft Corporation needed to build a usable fighter jet prototype—necessary because Germany was putting their own fighter jets in the air during World War II. The catch? Lockheed had only 180 days to accomplish the job.

From its beginning in 1943, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson ran the force, officially known as Advanced Developed Programs, that tackled this daunting task. Johnson set up shop in an unlikely place: a circus tent next to a smelly plastics company. There with his team he accomplished the seemingly impossible: a working fighter jet prototype in 143 days.

The jet’s creation, kept strictly out of sight, was to be the forerunner for a new type of development process. Though the program had its official name, it eventually came to be known as “Skunk Works” after a popular comic strip of the day (Al Capp’s L’il Abner).

And by the time all was said and done, something remarkable (in addition to a fighter jet in 143 days!) was born out of the original Skunk Works: “the de facto standard for running top secret projects among the world’s most innovative companies.”1 defines skunk works (lowercase version) as follows: “an often secret experimental laboratory or facility for producing innovative products, as in the computer or aerospace field.”2

Sociologist Everett Rogers offered additional insight into what skunk works is with his definition: “an especially enriched environment that is intended to help a small group of individuals design a new idea by escaping routine organizational procedures.”3

Interestingly, Kelly Johnson formulated some management principles stemming from the original Skunk Works task. These principles have stood the test of time and are employed today for creditable skunk works projects.

Author and innovation advisor Matthew E. May describes Johnson’s approach:

“Kelly Johnson had three simple management principles supporting a single fundamental belief: don’t build something you don’t believe in. His three principles: First, it’s more important to listen than to talk; second, even a timely wrong decision is better than no decision; and third, don’t halfheartedly wound problems—kill them dead.”4

These principles form the backbone of a good skunk works project, but there are additional practices and rules developed by Lockheed Martin, including instructions regarding the number of people involved, management structure, documentation, communication, and more. The full list can be found here.

Now that we have discussed what a skunk works project actually is—and where it came from—let’s talk about why it is still a viable project option today.

Why would a company want to undertake a skunk works project?

There are several possible reasons:

  • Time constraints. As in the case of Lockheed’s original Skunk Works, time constraints often drive companies to do things in an unorthodox manner. A skunk works project, due to its unique characteristics, can decrease delivery time for important (and urgent) tasks and products.
  • Distraction. We’ve all been there: too much to do and not enough time to do it. And the really, truly important tasks often get pushed aside for the more urgent. A skunk works project has the advantage of giving its people a free pass from distraction—at least while they’re working undercover.
  • Need for secrecy. At times a project needs to be taken offsite in order to maintain strict secrecy for a set amount of time. Skunk works projects fit the bill perfectly for this.
  • Lack of buy-in from various constituents. Sometimes everyone is not always on the same page—that’s just reality. Perhaps a skunk works project is needed to help convince others of the value proposition of an idea.

History is fascinating—not only does it give us facts about what happened in years past, but it also often provides ideas that springboard us into the future as well. Skunk works is that kind of idea, and we have a feeling it will be around for a good long while.






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