Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Power of Passion - Skunk Works Case Study

In my last post I spoke of the evolution of the term skunk works. This post looks at a current example of a skunk works in action.

Two key things to remember in considering this example. For a skunk works to work, you must have a champion. You also need to get it outside the normal system.

Statement of the Problem

The organisation in question is a business unit within a larger organisation. It has its own web site, but this has become very out of date.

A key problem here is that the organisation, like many modern organisations, is very thin on administrative resources. While there are 69 staff in all, there are only six support staff who between them have many different responsibilities. No one is directly responsible for the web site.

All staff know that the web site is outdated. When the issue was raised earlier this year, it was referred to a newly established communications committee. This committee, responsible for all communications matters across the business unit and without any administrative support, struggled to address its broad responsibilities in any meaningful way. The web site problem remained.

Finally, the champion pushing for web reform persuaded the unit's business manager to put up a recommendation to the unit's executive committee that a working group chaired by the champion should be formed under the communications committee. This was done.

The Process

The new working group was consciously kept outside existing structures. Nominations were called for from all staff. More than one in ten volunteered, creating a representative group covering different levels and areas. Membership included key support people including the unit's business manager.

The first meeting was a little chaotic while the group found its feet. While longer term objectives were set, the group decided to focus on immediate short term changes using an action planning approach. The aim here was to show staff that change was happening. Various individuals volunteered to undertake review tasks.

At the second meeting a week later - this ran for just thirty minutes with a time keeper in control, reflecting an earlier decision to meet often, but for very short times - two sets of changes were agreed.

The first were essentially machinery changes, corrections and updates that did not affect core content or raise any policy issues. The second were content changes requiring new content to be written. The day following the meeting, the business manager took the outcomes to his regular meeting with the unit's executive director, gaining the required sign-offs.

So after just two week's operation the group had approval for immediate alterations, along with sign-off to continue with content preparation for broader changes.

Note in all this that the really big questions, things such as added functionality to allow better use of the site for business purposes, were put aside. This was done quite deliberately to allow time to build experience and to avoid the type of blockages that had occurred in the past. The group wanted results and wanted them now.


I have given an example that very much represents work in progress.

In just a few weeks, this group achieved more than had been done in the previous twelve months. In doing so, it unleashed ideas and suggestions that had previously been blocked. The problem here will be to find the best way of managing these without overloading the whole process.

I will report back on progress and the lessons learned in a month or so.

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