The term skunk works originated in Lockheed Martin and is used in engineering and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects.
The term became popular in management discussions to describe innovative groups in general within organisations, groups that somehow achieved remarkable results. IBM and the development of the PC is an example. Then, as so often happens, fashions changed and the term dropped from favour. I think that's a pity.
Two things - tracking and control - mark modern organisations. Our computer systems allow us to track things in ways not possible before. In turn, management uses this power to try to channel, control and measure activity. The problem with this focus on tracking and control is that there is a fair bit of anecdotal evidence to suggest that many of the biggest break-throughs, things that shape the firm, come from individuals and groups working outside formal structures and systems.
The reasons for this are simple.
By their nature, modern management systems tend to deal with the known, whereas significant change often involves the unknown. This can make it hard to get required formal approvals to do new things that, by their nature, are unproven. Further, the administrative and process loads in our system rich organisations can actually suck the heart out of smaller initiatives. Too much time is spent in reporting and planning, not enough in experimenting and doing.
In these circumstances, people who want to achieve change or who are simply interested in looking at new things have to work around the organisation. They succeed in spite of, not because of, the organisation.
In saying this, I am not saying that we should give away reporting and control to let a thousand flowers bloom, although there is a strong case for simplification. Rather, firms need to find a way to facilitate change and experimentation.
The skunk works concept is one way of doing this because it frees people to get on with a task.
Skunk works can be formal or informal, they can be created by the organisation or by an individual or a group of individuals. In all cases, the distinctive feature is that they stand to some degree outside normal systems.
I will take a case study in my next post to illustrate the point.