SkunkInnovation and creative thinking needs room to breathe.

Away from the normal day-to-day operations of life, crazy needs a safe space to play around, make some radical mistakes and break things.

Madness which jumps the s-curve needs the comfort of the Skunk Works.

Originally, Skunk Works was / is the alias for Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs (ADP), formerly called Lockheed Advanced Development Projects.

Lockhead’s Skunk Works is responsible for a number of famous aircraft designs, including the U-2, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, and the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.

So what is a Skunk Works?

Essentially it’s a division of a company that plays no role in the daily operational success of a business, but instead is allowed complete autonomy and freedom to experiment with ideas and innovations, which perhaps at some time in the future, could then be formalised into the main structure of the business as a new product.

With no titles or key performance areas to worry about, members of a Skunk Works team are free of the political constraints that govern most teams within organisations, to focus on doing great work – rather than ‘defending their turf’ from criticism.

Skunk Works: Where does the name come from?

The term “Skunk Works” came from Al Capp’s satirical, hillbilly comic strip Li’l Abner, which was immensely popular in the 1940s and ’50s.

The “Skonk Works” was a dilapidated factory located on the remote outskirts of Dogpatch, in the backwoods of Kentucky. According to the strip, scores of locals were done in yearly by the toxic fumes of the concentrated “skonk oil”, which was brewed and barreled daily by “Big Barnsmell” (known as the lonely “inside man” at the Skonk Works), by grinding dead skunks and worn shoes into a smoldering still, for some mysterious, unspecified purpose.

The original Lockheed facility, during the development of the P-80 Shooting Star, was located adjacent to a malodorous plastics factory. According to Ben Rich’s memoir, an engineer jokingly showed up to work one day wearing a Civil Defense gas mask. To comment on the smell and the secrecy the project entailed, another engineer, Irv Culver, referred to the facility as “Skonk Works”. As the development was very secret, the employees were told to be careful even with how they answered phone calls. One day, when the Department of the Navy was trying to reach the Lockheed management for the P-80 project, the call was accidentally transferred to Culver’s desk. Culver answered the phone in his trademark fashion of the time, by picking up the phone and stating “Skonk Works, inside man Culver”. “What?” replied the voice at the other end. “Skonk Works”, Culver repeated. The name stuck. Culver later said at an interview conducted in 1993 that “when Kelly Johnson heard about the incident, he promptly fired me. It didn’t really matter, since he was firing me about twice a day anyways.” [via]

From Lockheed to Apple

In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson tells how Jobs cherry-picked a team of about 20 “pirates,” as he referred to them, and seceded from the Apple main campus. He relocated the team to a small building three blocks away, next to a Texaco station. The two-story brown-shingled building became known as Texaco Towers.

Jobs kept the renegade spirit alive with his maxim “it’s better to be a pirate than join the navy.” Jobs actively recruited rebels and swashbucklers—talented but audacious individuals who could move fast and get things done. [via]

What’s the Skunk Works recipe?

There are obviously no hard and fast rules, but the basic idea of a Skunk Works is simple:

  • Pick an audacious goal that scares you
  • Go through a ruthless framing exercise to focus your attention and offer liberating constraints
  • Hand-select a winning team who are going to tackle the challenge
  • Isolate yourselves far away from the daily operational beast
  • Throw yourselves head long into the project
  • Disband when done; or pick another project idea to get cracking on

So if radical innovation is getting stuck somewhere in the general humdrum of daily operations – it’s perhaps worth thinking about going skunk.