“We are defined not by the technologies we create but the process in which we create them” – Clarence (Kelly) Johnson, creator of the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works
Many readers will have heard of the famous Lockheed Martin “Skunk Works”. It is an officially sanctioned pseudonym for Lockheed Martin’s advanced development facility, responsible for many innovative developments including the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft. The “Skunk Works” was deliberately given autonomy within the corporation to ensure that it could develop and sell new projects without succumbing to the bureaucracy that would slow down the rest of the organization. Andrea Fosfuri and Thomas Rønde (2008) describe how other large technology companies including IBM, Siemens and Intel have created similar groups. Research has shown that the “Skunk Works” model can be effective in cases where internal conflicts would otherwise drive a Research and Development (R&D) group towards an incremental approach, instead of a more radical, recombinant approach.
It might surprise you to read that I don’t prefer the “Skunk Works” approach as a way to drive innovation. If your company is so large, and barriers so high, or the idea so radical that you need an autonomous R&D group, then a “Skunk Works” may, just may, be your best bet, but it brings its own challenges. The problem with the approach is that innovation cannot just be a “bolt-on”. Innovation must be embedded in strategy and therefore the innovation process must be owned by the whole of the enterprise or business. It’s not just the domain of one department – be that R&D, marketing or whoever. If you spin R&D off into a new organisation, you have to make that new organisation be operationally autonomous and responsible for its own manufacturing, supply, sales, marketing – everything operational. It is vitally important for an organisation to be connected to its environment to innovate successfully so no function can be hidden away. Effectively you have to create a brand new company, even if it might share “back office” functions with the parent. It’s better if you can have the parent organisation commit to the new idea and develop it as its own.
For innovation to work, the whole company has to be engaged in the process, and in many cases other companies too – be they partners, suppliers, customers or other stakeholders. If you create a “Skunk Works” organisation just for R&D, the whole company will not be involved, and you will have a hard time integrating the new invention into the company and commercialising it – in other words you will have a hard time innovating.
References and Further Reading
Fosfuri, A., & Rønde, T. (2008). Leveraging Resistance to Change and the Skunk Works Model of Innovation. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.
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