Should you use Skunk Works? Not a Cut-and-Dried Answer

Topics: Exploratory Product Development | Organization

A two-seat, supersonic reconnaissance aircraft from the 1960’s.

This is an excerpt from our book Learn & Adapt: ExPD an Adaptive Product Development Process for Rapid Innovation and Risk Reduction

Recently, an executive asked me a question regarding the merits of designing a Skunk Works® program for developing innovative products internally.  It is not a cut-and-dried answer because there are advantages and disadvantages of the skunk works model. The skunk works model is also referred to as a tiger team, autonomous team, strategic experiment, and NewCo (1).  Lockheed Martin developed the Skunk Works® methodology in 1943 and used these practices to develop the XP-80 Shooting Star jet fighter for the military during World War II (2).

Basically, skunk works describe teams that operate outside an organization’s regular project development structure to develop a highly innovative or strategically important project. In some instances, the team may be located offsite, and is separate from the rest of the core organization.

Over the years, we have found that there are tradeoffs with using the skunk works model.  The advantages of skunk works project development are speed, project focus and team camaraderie. The disadvantages are skilled personnel leaving the company once the project is completed, internal employee jealousy and the ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome.

Advantages of Skunk Works

One of our clients, a consumer electronics manufacturer, decided to form a skunk works team to gain considerable speed developing a product they wanted to exhibit at the January Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to displace a major competitor.  The team needed to develop the product in nine months as opposed to the normal product development cycle of two to three years.   Their product included a new technology that already existed, but was new to the client’s company.   The product was successfully developed, they hit the target of nine months, and they had fun doing it.

Why was this project successful and what was different?    The small dedicated core team of three engineers and one product manager, worked very closely together and exclusively on the project giving the project their total attention.  The skunk works culture was very cooperative compared to the friction found in the core organization.  They developed a culture that worked for them including setting their own hours, being in a separate location, and not following the rigid dress code.

The Disadvantages of Skunk Works

Unfortunately, once the product was completed and the group was disbanded, many of the team members left the organization because they could not fit into the culture of the core organization, or the organization just did not know what to do with them.  This is a common occurrence that we have viewed over the years with skunk works teams.

Another negative effect included the jealousy of employees not involved in the skunk works project.   Members of the core organization viewed the skunk works group as doing all of the fun and innovative work while they were stuck with the daily mundane tasks.  To provoke the situation even more, because the projects they were working on were quite confidential, members of the skunk works team typically worked and ate lunch separately making this team look even more exclusive.

Should skunk works teams be used?

An article I wrote quite a few years ago provides an overview of Motorola’s Early Stage Accelerator (ESA) program (3).  This team was eventually disbanded, and the biggest problem encountered was the ‘not invented here syndrome.’  Basically, the core organization, did not like an outside team inventing and developing ideas for them, they wanted these capabilities built into their own organizational structure.

We believe the overarching issue with skunk works is the lack of sustainability and integration of these valuable practices into the core organization.   As mentioned before, the team disbands after the project is completed and valuable members of the team leave the organization. The important processes and practices that lead to the success of the project are not integrated into the core company and are lost.

Ideally, we find that skunk works are a good practice for products that have a tremendous amount of urgency like the strategically important product I described above that needed to be delivered at CES.

If you have an ongoing program, you may want to consider diffusing the issue of exclusivity and turn-over, by integrating other core team members into these programs on a rotational basis.  This will also assist with reducing the ‘not invented here’ syndrome and integration of best practices back into the core organization.

This is only one suggestion… Have you seen anything else within your skunk works program that worked well to combat these issues?

(1) Vijay Govindaraja and Chris Trimble “Building Breakthrough Businesses Within Established Organizations, HBR, May 2005.


(3) Mary Drotar “How Motorola Uses an Early Stage Accelerator, Interview with Jim O’Connor.” PDMA Visions Magazine, December 2006.

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