Pulp Innovation XXIX: Skunkworks Strategy

With the decision made to implement a skunkworks, now it's time to deal with logistics. Marlow advises on the best plan of action.

“Building a skunkworks isn’t going to be too difficult” I said.  “You won’t need a significant amount of space, or funds, to work effectively, but you will need several good people, and they’ll need to commit at least half of their time to working in the skunkworks.”

“Only half their time?”

“Ideally, they’d be full time in the skunkworks” I admitted “I just wasn’t sure if you can convince four or five people to give up their regular jobs and move into a disruptive innovation team for four to six months, with no guarantee that they can return to what they were doing before.”

“I believe we’ll have to have them full time, or else they’ll get sucked back into their ‘day jobs’.  If we are going to make the skunkworks successful, then the participants need to be full time.”

“In that case, they also need to be volunteers.  You want a team that is fully committed to the success of the skunkworks, and innovation at Accipiter.  If you simply ask for several individuals, you’ll find that managers will use the skunkworks as a dumping ground for people they don’t want or who don’t add value in their existing roles.  You are also going to need to demonstrate what these individuals will be doing in six months.  Do you anticipate the skunkworks will continue?  Or do you think they could become the core of an innovation team?  Or will they need to find roles in their current functions?”

“I don’t know that part yet.  Let’s design the skunkworks and determine the staffing, and then think through how it works and what the logical outcomes are.”

I’d tossed a few grenades at her, and she seemed as passionate about the skunkworks concept as when we’d first started talking.  I had very little reason to believe she could pull it off, but given the glacial pace of decision making and change at Accipiter, perhaps this was the only way to introduce something radically new.

“I’d recommend, based on our experience, a site off campus, away from the Accipiter culture and the pressure of fitting in.  Does Accipiter own or lease any office space in town, away from the Accipiter campus?”

“We have small satellite offices in several locations.  I’m concerned, though, that all of them have a fair amount of Accipiter staff, so we’d still be ‘in’ Accipiter even in those offices.”

“Then that means finding a small office, away from Accipiter, where you can establish the team.  With four or five people you won’t need more than a thousand, fifteen hundred square feet of office space. You can probably find that anywhere.”

“I had in mind some space in the warehouse district.  You know, bare walls, high ceilings.  Get away from the traditional class “A” space and cubicles.”

“That’s an interesting suggestion.  You need to be sure the individuals you bring on to your team are comfortable working in a different environment.  If you can find something that’s different in terms of space, it’s possible it would be a good place for brainstorming and other innovation activities, close by yet away from Accipiter.”

“OK, I’ll start working on the space.  You’ve mentioned four or five people.  What kinds of people do we need?  Is four or five enough?”

“Most research shows that as a team grows, it struggles to retain a focus on disruptive or radical innovation.  Only small teams seem to be able to get beyond the traditional corporate thinking.  Much more than five people and you start to introduce group think, and revert to common denominator thinking.  You want to keep the skunkwork team small and heterogeneous, with different skills and experiences if possible.”

I thought, after meeting many of the Accipiter executives, she’d have a hard time with this anyway, but perhaps within the rank and file there were people who wanted change.

“As far as types of people” I said “Look first for people who are a bit of an irritant in their organizations, who are ‘idea’ people or who constantly ask why things can’t be done differently.  There are always people that fit this description in any organization.  Then talk to them to understand if they are merely complainers, or, if given the chance, they would create real change.  Then, see if they are crazy enough to volunteer for something like this.”

“Crazy enough?  I’m going to make it a badge of honor to be on this team” she said.

She’s either got the moxie to pull this off, I thought, or she’s frustrated enough to commit a frontal assault.  Half a league, half a league, in the valley of death.  Cannons to the left, cannons to the right.  The six hundred failed in their quest but ended up immortalized later.  Would the skunkworks end up the same way?

“I’d want to see people with several different types of skills or business knowledge on the team.  So I’d definitely find someone who has been working on corporate strategy, product management and sales.  Don’t worry too much just yet about finance or legal, they are trained to ask the right questions, just not the ones we want to focus on right now.  Get as much customer interaction and insight on the team as possible, and a reasonable breadth of skills and knowledge so you don’t attack the problem from any specific perspective.”

“OK, I think I can start recruiting the team based on this feedback, and I’ve already looked at space.  What kinds of help can you provide to help us get started?”

“From a consultative viewpoint we at Marlowe can help you with trend spotting and synthesis and scenario planning.  What’s going to be important for you to succeed is to pick one area of the company where you believe a radically new product or service can create a real difference.  We need to focus all of our work on a specific area and create a compelling new product or service.  Before your team can be successful, you’ll need to shrink the scope of their work.  Then we can help develop alternative scenarios and drive out customer insights and requirements, which you can use to generate ideas about new products.”

“OK, so what’s this going to cost over a four to six month period of time?”

“Assuming each person costs about $8K a month, fully loaded, and you have five people, that’s $40K for the team per month, plus space, overhead and so forth.  Say $50K for grins per month.  Our costs will be another $25K per month.  So you will be looking at approximately $75K per month, for four to six months.  Minimum $300K, maximum $500K.”

“OK, that’s enough for me to get started.  I’m going to write up an outline and send it over for you to review.  My goal is to get something in front of Bill by the end of the week for his review and comment.”

This should shake something loose, I thought.  It will either light a fire under the executive team, or encourage Susan to find a new job in a different company.

“Are you sure this is the right approach, Susan?  It could be a big risk on your part.”

“Bill brought me aboard to run an innovation program.  I left a good role to take on this position, and eight months later we are still only talking about innovation.  I want to force this to a decision.  If it goes my way, great.  If not, I’ll know where we stand and I can start looking for something new.”

About the author:


Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project.

Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” a book that encompasses much of the OVO Innovation methodology, and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities. In 2010 he chaired the Innovate North Carolina conference and was a keynote speaker at Queen’s University, University of the Pacific, UNC and several other colleges and conferences. Jeffrey has an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin and an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Virginia.

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