Project Practitioners > Create Your Skunk Works

Create Your Skunk Works

By Chris Cook, PMP

READ TIME: 5 minutes

 

For those of you unfamiliar with the term Skunk Works, here is an explanation from Lockheed Martin as to how it got its name:

It was the wartime year of 1943 when Kelly Johnson brought together a hand-picked team of Lockheed Aircraft Corporation engineers and manufacturing people to rapidly and secretly complete the XP-80 project. Because the war effort was in full swing, there was no space available at the Lockheed facility for Johnson’s effort. Consequently, Johnson's organization operated out of a rented circus tent next to a manufacturing plant that produced a strong odor, which permeated the tent.

Each member of Johnson’s team was cautioned that design and production of the new XP-80 must be carried out in strict secrecy. No one was to discuss the project outside the small organization, and team members were even warned to be careful how they answered the phones.

A team engineer named Irv Culver was a fan of Al Capp's newspaper comic strip, "Li'l Abner," in which there was a running joke about a mysterious and malodorous place deep in the forest called the "Skonk Works." There, a strong beverage was brewed from skunks, old shoes, and other strange ingredients.

One day, Culver's phone rang, and he answered it by saying "Skonk Works, inside man Culver speaking." Fellow employees quickly adopted the name for their mysterious division of Lockheed. "Skonk Works" became "Skunk Works."

 

The time period was World War II. The need was a jet fighter to counter the growing German threat. Lockheed Aircraft Corporation was chosen to begin operations on the new jet fighter. Clarence “Kelly” Johnson led a team of engineers, now famously labeled “Skunk Works.”

Johnson designed and built the XP-80 is seven fewer days than required. For a government project to complete seven days before the deadline is a monumental feat. Johnson created his Skunk Works to challenge ‘the current bureaucratic system that stifled innovation and hindered progress.’

Skunk Works is the secret club that only the select few have access to or even know about. It is the childhood dream of having a treehouse with a secret password to enter. What goes on in the treehouse? Only the members know. Who is a part of the treehouse? Only the ones who possess the knowledge of the secret words.

Here are some keys to starting your Skunk Works:

 

Not created for business as usual

This approach is not for reaching annual goals over the course of 12 months of 8-hour days. A gradual style will not work in this setting. Skunk Works is built around ‘high, hard goals.’ The unreachable goals to most, yet your team finds a way to conquer in less time than the status quo goals.

Take a look at Johnson and his team. They took an idea (building a jet fighter to compete with the Germans) and completed said idea within months of shaking hands. A small, dedicated operation performed more work in months than some companies take years. This drastic shift in production should not be taken lightly. This idea is not a far-fetched, head-in-the-clouds approach. Skunk Works has actual applications to real-world problems.

In sports, teams have a ‘war room.’ This dedicated area is where the top executives and scouts gather to pick players who best fit their schemes. Not everyone has access to this room. Going in and out at will is not an option. Once that door closes, you remain locked into the process of finding the best talent.

Lettings are a monthly endeavor in the road construction industry. Each month, on the first Tuesday, companies gather their bids together for state work. Wisconsin operated in this manner if this sounds unfamiliar. All-nighters were required. Estimators, project managers, superintendents, and executives all played a role in turning these bids in at 8 am the next morning. A monthly Skunk Works was enacted to create numerous proposals in hours that normally take weeks.

 

Don’t just set goals, make them big goals

Big goals outperform small goals. If you fall short of a small goal, you end up at square one. Falling short of big goal means you fail forward and outperform any small goal.

I write about 10x goals. This shoot-for-the-moon approach forces progress. Increasing a goal by 10% leads to incremental success, otherwise known as status quo. 10x forces your imagination to kick into high gear.

How can a team of estimators and project managers turn in multiple bids awarding millions of dollars worth of contracts in just a few days? Because the resources are pooled, complete dedication from every individual in the room, and an imagination that does not limit the outcome. This Skunk Works mentality leads to the biggest projects of the year being awarded.

 

Wall off Skunk Works

The most important key to success is isolation. Peter Diamandis, an all around Silicon Valley wizard, says Skunk Works ‘stimulates risk-taking, encouraging ideas weird and wild and acting as a counterforce to organizational inertia.’ Diamandis goes on to explain organizational inertia as ‘the notion that once any company achieves success, its desire to develop and champion radical new technologies and directions is often tempered by the much stronger desire not to disrupt existing markets and lose their paychecks.’

By walling off your Skunk Works to these influences, you create an environment all on its own. Separating the plodding organization from your next level team embraces agility and fluidity not seen in the main hub of your organization.

Let’s go back to the letting example. These teams seclude themselves in a nearby hotel or office area. The room is dedicated to letting procedures only. There is no one coming in to talk about the weekend or dinner plans or unrelated issues. If you felt the need to congregate, you must leave the area and reassimilate yourself in the common room.

This focus on the goal at hand creates an environment where the task is the only objective. Everything you say, everything you do, and everything you think within those walls is about the big goal in front of you. Isolating yourself limits distractions.

 

Takeaways

Your Skunk Works is a place for dedicated professionals willing to push the limits of what is thought possible. There are levels of this game.

You have the recreational workers showing up for their paychecks doing just enough to stay on board. Rocking the boat is not part of what they do. They say ‘yes’ and go back to their desks watching until the clock strikes the time they leave.

You have the weekend warriors willing to put in extra work when necessary and giving close to 100% effort when they are within those corporate walls. Answering some emails and phone calls on the weekend if the job requires it.

The final level is a professional. This person dedicates all waking hours to the task at hand. He or she lies in bed thinking of ways to improve or solve the next problem. Obsession and solution seeking describe these individuals. They cannot be bogged down by the other groups of individuals.

Find the professionals amongst you. Seclude them from the crabs in the bucket trying to pull them back to reality. Place big goals in front of them. Establish your Skunk Works.



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