Lessons from Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works: Autonomy Can Create Innovative Workplaces

Lockheed Skunk Works

Lockheed Corporation's Skunk Works: A top-secret research and production facility In 1943, Lockheed Corporation established a top-secret research and production facility informally called Skunk Works. It was explicitly tasked with developing a high-speed fighter aircraft within 180 days. This new aircraft was to compete with aircraft produced by the German aircraft manufacturing company Messerschmitt.

Skunk Works consisted of Lockheed’s best design engineers and technicians who occupied a rented circus shelter adjacent to a foul-smelling plastic factory (hence the Skunk Works moniker.) More significantly, Skunk Works was isolated from corporate bureaucracy, granted much autonomy over decision-making, and encouraged to disregard standard procedures in the interest of expediency. In a record 143 days, Skunk Works designed, developed, and delivered the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star aircraft, the first jet fighter operated by the United States Army Air Forces.

The Skunk Works framework of innovation was so successful that Lockheed has continued to operate this division for decades. Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, team leader of the first Lockheed Skunk Works project, codified 14 rules for all Skunk Works projects. Over the years, Lockheed’s Skunk Works designed and developed many aircraft, including the famous U-2 reconnaissance plane.

Disentangled from Bureaucracy and Management Constraints

Other companies borrowed this innovation idea from Lockheed to develop advanced products or discover product/service/business ideas that are entirely new to their parent organizations. Many businesses and engineering companies started their own “skunkworks” divisions consisting of self-directing teams of highly talented individuals who were seconded from their regular work environments. Unconstrained by executive interference, they operated under the radar. They were given a high degree of autonomy, access to R&D funds, and exceptional freedom from the parent organization’s bureaucracy and management constraints. Here are some examples of skunkworks projects.

  • At IBM, a skunkworks project in 1981 pioneered industry standards to adapt personal computers for business needs and released the IBM PC. This helped IBM break away from its lynchpin mainframe business and launch its celebrated personal computers division. IBM has since continued the skunkworks tradition. In the 2000s, IBM established many “emerging-business opportunities” or EBO teams and assigned its best and brightest people in charge of risky startup ideas that could germinate new business lines in five to seven years.
  • At Motorola in the mid-2000s, a team of designers and engineers defied the company’s own rules to develop the best-selling RAZR mobile phone. This skunkworks team was isolated from Motorola’s main R&D facility. Fortune magazine noted that this “tight-knit team repeatedly flouted Motorola’s own rules for developing new products. They kept the project top-secret, even from their colleagues. They used materials and techniques Motorola had never tried before. After contentious internal battles, they threw out accepted models of what a mobile telephone should look and feel like. In short, the team that created the RAZR broke the mold, and in the process rejuvenated the company.”
  • Google's Collaborative Office Spaces Encourage Innovation Google’s famous 20% rule and innovative workspaces lets employees collaborate across the company and work on their dream projects, but bring those projects to the larger collective for further funding and development. Many of Google’s innovative products and features in Gmail, Google News, Google Talk, Google Suggest, Transit Directions, etc. originated as 20% projects.
  • Microsoft’s skunkworks located in Studio B facility on its Redmond campus developed Kinect, Surface tablets and computers, and other recent products.
  • Apple has the most celebrated of skunkworks teams. Apple Chief Design Officer Jonathan Ive’s design laboratory consists of a few handpicked designers who work on “very experimental material that the world is not quite ready for.” Working in an area separate from Apple’s main Cupertino campus, Ive’s team maintains a culture of incredible secrecy.

Skunkworks Innovation Model and Startup Cultures

In the 1960s and 1970s, the skunkworks concept fell out of favor, as many companies started to see skunkworks teams as distractions and as cost centers “with an attitude.” However, with a renewed emphasis on teamwork and a focus on setting up startup-like innovative workplaces where teams can flourish, the skunkworks model of innovation has been renewed and revived in the last two decades.

Inertia, internal politics, bureaucracy, layers upon layers of management questioning risk and rewards, and the fear of failure weigh heavily on many a company’s pursuit of new products and services. The skunkworks innovation model and the startup culture offer frameworks for organizations to pursue growth ideas separate from current lines of business.

In 2013, General Electric instituted a program called FastWorks to mimic Silicon Valley’s startup culture in a company-wide effort to foster innovation and develop products quickly and cost-effectively. Boeing’s Phantom Works, Nike’s Innovation Kitchen and Sports Research Lab, Amazon’s Lab126 and A9 laboratories, Google X, and Walmart Labs are some of today’s prominent skunkworks organizations.

Idea for Impact: Autonomy Fosters a Creative Environment

Employee Autonomy Can Create Innovative Workplaces For managers, the key take-away from the skunkworks concept is that giving autonomy to employees and teams not only engenders a happier and satisfied workforce, but also fosters a creative environment. Some ideas to consider:

  • Give much autonomy to those employees and teams who have demonstrated the promise of being self-directed and maintaining alignment with the larger organizational goals. Direct them, oversee their progress, and follow-up when necessary. Micromanage when you must.
  • Give employees discretion over their tasks and resources. Create a favorable environment in which people are encouraged to discover, use, and grow their unique skills.
  • Don’t second-guess employees’ and teams’ ideas and decisions unless necessary. Judging or criticizing not only undermines their confidence, but also keeps them from sharing their ideas with you in the future.
  • Allow employees and teams to experiment, iterate their ideas, gather data and develop performance metrics, and quickly discard less promising ideas in favor of stronger ones.
  • Support risk-taking and failure. Celebrate failure as it can provide valuable technical and organizational insights. Encourage employees to be confident enough to try to fail and learn lessons without being apprehensive about being rebuked.

Finding Potential Problems & Risk Analysis: A Case Study on ‘The Three Faces of Eve’

The Three Faces of Eve (1957)

Risk Analysis is a Forerunner to Risk Reduction

My previous article stressed the importance of problem finding as an intellectual skill and as a definitive forerunner to any creative process. In this article, I will draw attention to another facet of problem finding: thinking through potential problems.

Sometimes people are unaware of the harmful, unintended side effects of their actions. They fail to realize that a current state of affairs may lead to problems later on. Their actions and decisions could result in outcomes that are different from those planned. Risk analysis reduces the chance of non-optimal results.

The Three Contracts of Eve

'The 3 Faces of Eve' by Corbett H. Thigpen and Hervey M. Cleckley (ISBN 0445081376) A particularly instructive example of finding potential problems and mitigating risk concerns the Hollywood classic The Three Faces of Eve (1957). This psychological drama features the true story of Chris Sizemore who suffered from dissociative identity disorder (also called multiple personality disorder.) Based on The Three Faces of Eve by her psychiatrists Corbett Thigpen and Hervey Cleckley, the movie portrays Sizemore’s three personalities, which manifest in three characters: Eve White, Eve Black, and Jane.

Before filming started on The Three Faces of Eve, the legal department of the 20th Century Fox studio insisted that Sizemore sign three separate contracts—one for each of her personalities—to cover the studio from any possible legal action. For that reason, Sizemore was asked to evoke “Eve White,” “Eve Black,” and “Jane,” and then sign an agreement while manifesting each of these respective personalities. According to Aubrey Solomon’s The Films of 20th Century-Fox and her commentary on the movie’s DVD, the three signatures on the three contracts were all different because they were a product of three distinct personalities that Sizemore had invoked because of her multiple personality disorder.

Idea for Impact: Risk analysis and risk reduction should be one of the primary goals of any intellectual process.

Postscript Notes

  • I recommend the movie The Three Faces of Eve for its captivating glimpse into the mind of a person afflicted with dissociative identity disorder. Actress Joanne Woodward won the 1958 Academy Award (Oscar) for best actress for her portrayal of the three Eves.
  • The automotive, aerospace, and other engineering disciplines use a formal risk analysis procedure called “failure mode and effects analysis” (FEMA.) FEMA examines the key risk factors that may fail a project, system, design, or process, the potential effects of those failures, and the seriousness of these effects.

Find out What Your Customers Want and Give it to Them

“Nobody asked the dogs what they wanted”

Dog Food Product Once upon a time, a pet-foods company struggled to sell a new dog food product they’d recently introduced to the market.

The company’s CEO called the department heads together to discuss why the new product wouldn’t sell.

The head of production said he’d done everything right; it wasn’t his department’s fault.

The heads of the sales, advertising, finance, packaging, shipping, and distribution departments had done everything right. None of them were to blame.

The CEO demanded, “Darn! What happened? Why won’t our new product sell?”

A junior staffer shouted from the back of the room, “Sir, it’s just that the dogs simply won’t eat our doggone food. You see, nobody asked the dogs what they wanted.”

Idea for Impact: Customer Focus Drives Company Success

Your research and development efforts will be successful only if they’re driven by a thorough understanding of what your customers want. Engage your customers. Pay close attention to their needs in every phase of product/service design including idea generation, product design, prototyping, production, distribution, and service. Remember Peter Drucker’s dictum that “the purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer.”

The Opportunities in Customer Pain Points

The Opportunities in Customer's Pain Points

Ellis Paul Torrance, the American psychologist who devoted his career to researching and teaching creativity, observed that “the process of sensing gaps or disturbing missing elements and formulating hypotheses” is pivotal to the creative process.

This is especially true of solving customer’s problems. Many innovative ideas are born of a reliable formula: prudent attention to and empathy with customers’ experiences, as well as applying resourceful imagination to solve customers’ pain points

Many an innovator—either as a provider or as a consumer—develops deep empathy for customers’ pain points and sees an underexploited customer-need for convenience. The innovator contemplates, “This customer’s experience does not have to be expensive, protracted, hard, or inferior, as it is with the incumbent provider.” The innovator then uses his/her imagination to convert that understanding into a business idea with broad potential.

Consider the following cases of innovation that could be traced back to customer pain points:

  • Crispy Potato Chips. Legend has it that in the 1850s, Chef George Crum of New York’s Saratoga Springs created potato chips. A cranky customer at Moon’s Lake House frequently sent Crum’s fried potatoes back to the kitchen complaining that they were mushy and not crunchy enough. To appease the customer, Crum sliced the potatoes as thin as possible and deep-fried them. The customer loved them. Before long, “Saratoga Chips” became popular throughout New England.
  • Airtight Packaging for Potato Chips. When potato chips were first mass-produced for home consumption, they were packaged and distributed in metal containers, in which the chips would quickly go stale. During the 1920s in Monterey Park, California, Laura Scudder conceived of packaging potato chips in sealed bags. Scudder’s employees ironed wax paper into the form of bags and fill them up with potato chips. This airtight packaging not only kept the chips fresh and crisp longer, but also reduced crumbling. After the invention of the moisture-proof cellophane wrap by DuPont a few years later, chips were packaged in polymer bags. Then, nitrogen gas was blown in to prevent oxidation, extend shelf life, and prevent chips from being crushed as they were handled and distributed.

Chips taste fresher in Cellophane: DuPont Advertisement

  • Netflix. At the video rental chain Blockbuster, customers who were paying the most in late fees were also the company’s most prolific renters. Even as they continued to patronize Blockbuster, these customers vented their frustration to Blockbuster’s employees, as well as to other existing and potential customers. In fact, in the ’90s, almost $300 million or 20% of Blockbuster’s pretax profit came from late fees. In 1997, Reed Hastings, one devoted Blockbuster customer, was charged $40 in late fees on a VHS tape of the movie Apollo 13. Frustrated by his fees, Hastings started Netflix, a mail-distribution movie-rental service. As soon as the business caught on, Hastings eliminated late fees. Netflix grew quickly, drove Blockbuster into bankruptcy in 2010, and is now valued at $50 billion.
  • Google News. After 9/11, Google engineer Krishna Bharat and his teammates repeatedly visited ten to 15 news sites looking for a wide range of news reports. Using Google’s legendary “20% Time” policy that allows employees to spend one day a week on side projects and collaborate beyond their immediate teams, Bharat wrote an artificial intelligence software to crawl thousands of news websites, cluster news articles based on topics and keywords, and aggregate a summary. Other engineers at Google loved Bharat’s prototype software and joined the effort to build Google News.
  • Corning’s Gorilla Glass for Smartphones. By 2007, cell phone makers and consumers were frustrated with the screens on their cell phones. The plastic screens broke too easily when the handsets were dropped, and keys and other objects left deep scratches. Sensing a business opportunity, some engineers at Corning dug into their corporate archives. They dredged up the formulation of a super-strong, flexible glass, Chemcor, which was unsuccessfully prototyped for automobile windshields during the 1960s. The engineers spent $300,000 to produce a trial run of Chemcor and discussed the results with cell phone manufacturers. The resulting cell phone glass was called Gorilla Glass and was widely adopted by Samsung, LG, Motorola, and other cell phone manufacturers. Gorilla’s thinness, strength, and resistance to scratches became the defining feature of touch-screen operation. Later Gorilla Glass became a core component on the iPhone, smartphones, tablets, and other portable devices. For Corning, Gorilla Glass has become a significant revenue stream.

Corning's Gorilla Glass for Smartphones from Chemcor formulation

  • Uber. In 2008, during a snowy night on a trip to attend a tech conference in Paris, American entrepreneurs Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick had trouble getting a cab. Garrett purportedly said in frustration, “Why can’t we just tap a button and get a ride?” Before long, during a brainstorming session on ideas for new startups, Camp and Kalanick thought of starting a taxi company with a smartphone app to summon taxis. Instead, they built an app to hail taxi-rides on-demand and opened their app for use by established taxi companies as well as by casual autonomous drivers. In 2010, they launched UberCab in San Francisco. Uber is now worth $50 billion and operates in over 300 cities around the world.

Idea for Impact: Transform Customer Pain Points into Customer Delight

Customer pain points are a consistent pointer to potential opportunities not least because customers are usually willing to pay a premium to have their frustrations with a product or a service resolved.

Discover what opportunities may exist in your customers’ pain points. Examine product- and service-features that your customers find inadequate, more urgent, unpleasant, frustrating, or otherwise troubling. Consider how you could transform those product- and service-deficiencies into innovative features.

Don’t just satisfy customers; delight them by becoming more sensitive to their problems and reducing or eliminating their pain points.