Skunk Works

As an employee of a fellow defense contractor, my ears perked up a little more than usual when Professor Cook mentioned one our competitors in class, Lockheed Martin.  And the story that followed was even  more compelling. It took Lockheed Martin 143 days to create a world class fighter jet in 1943…and no that is not a typo. The seemingly  “impossible” was completed and this was before we made our most dramatic  advances in technology and even before the study of project management caught on in academic fields. So how was the “impossible” made “possible”? It was accomplished through the implementation of a Skunk Works team which still operates today and continues to produce revolutionary technology in the defense industry.

So what is a Skunk Works team? A Skunk Works team is a small team of highly motivated and capable individuals that is taken out of its traditional working environment and given almost endless freedom from their corporation’s standard, procedures, rules, and regulations to create cutting-edge products or services on limited funding and under strict timelines. Kelly Johnson, the chief engineer at LM and mastermind of the Skunk Works project management technique, created a set of 14 rules that should be used in implementing Skunk Works. The 14 rules can be read in link 2.  Although the rules outlined by Johnson were for a government/defense environment, the basic concepts can be boiled down to three concepts: “First, it’s more important to listen than to talk; second, even a timely wrong decision is better than no decision; and third, don’t halfheartedly wound problems–kill them dead (2).”  These rules emphasize the importance of leadership and decision making for effective Project Managers. Without these qualities,  the team will not work optimally which will impact cost, schedule, and performance which cannot be sacrificed in critical R&D projects.

The ideas have recently drifted outside of R&D projects.  One example is Malaysia Airlines, which created “laboratories”to bring together teams to tackle specific issues such as boosting sales, increasing customer satisfaction, and reducing overhead costs among other. The group stays committed on its task for an extended time ( ~month), until it has fulfilled its agreed-upon “exit criteria”. The idea has gained so much traction at the company that the airline’s CEO believe working on such a team, “is not a job; it’s a calling”.  Another uproot of Skunk Works is the creation of  creative workspaces that boast bright colors, open layouts, and more flexible workplace regulations that foster the sharing of ideas and risk-taking. Many of the most successful companies in the world (Google, Apple, Amazon,etc) have mastered the creative workspace and continue attract the brightest talents and push the limits in their respective industries.






6 thoughts on “Skunk Works

  1. I think it would be fascinating to work on a project team like this. It seems like almost the SWAT Team version of project management and it certainly is a great idea. Take a core team of your most talented employees and give them a problem. Give them a month to work on it and almost unlimited resources and basically say, “I’m locking you in a room. Don’t come out until you have a solution.” It seems so simple, its a wonder more companies don’t follow this model.

  2. In a way this reminds me of company’s that put together “think tanks” that bring together extremely intelligent people from different aspects/divisions of the business in order to help spark and create innovations for products for the company. These Skunk teams are slightly different but their mentality is exactly whats needed in order to complete a project successfully, in a condensed period of time with a limited budget. The key in these groups, in my opinion, lies in the 3 concepts they go by and must stand by in order to be successful.

  3. I also identified with the LM story. Back in 2005, I used the Skunk Works philosophy to engage a team of technologist on the delivery of a software asset management system. We had no rules, no budget, but a defined outcome. It was an interesting undertaking seeing that we procure software in 15 days to provide the level of information needed by senior management. The process and strategy down to giving the team a name was used to separate this objective from standard work strategies and constraints. Our code name was used in notes, emails and sessions. We met in a basement roomed to develop the code and infrastructure. This showed applicability to any project as you defined in your comments. I think the new world of work sometimes takes tracing, documenting and requirements gathering to a degree to hinder projects. While you cannot do all projects this way, those future facing projects can sure benefit from this strategy.

  4. Awesome post! I was wondering what our Professor was talking about when she about a project management team setting a fundation for project management core competenties back in 1943. Thank you for posting the link to the rules of the successful skunk works project. After reading through them I am very impressed that this occurred back in 1943, I mean our text book today is still going over examples of these items. I really like the point, “•The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems).” Because in my industry it would seem that the more people on a project the more that is able to be accomplished, but in my experience the fewer members there are of a diverisified background, the better the deliverable produced. This tenant of the Skunk Works examplifies this. Great post.

  5. I have always liked the phrase “Making the impossible possible”. It really only works if the project succeeds. But how much more can be learned from the projects that do prove impossible? One might argue that more is gained from failing than from succeeding. But only in success can people move forward.

    As for Skunk Works, if these teams are so successful, then why can’t they be utilized 100% of the time? Has there been any study done into what is the success tipping point that differ between a fabulous success or a project that fails because of unclear or impossible expectations? How many of you been on Skunk Works teams that have failed and not realized it? Many people are put in impossible situations everyday where we are forced to manage teams short of resources and tight details. But it would seem that you will only be remembered and glorified if you succeed. Otherwise it is routine work for most project managers. (And a war raging on outside doesn’t hurt your chances for being remembered either!)

  6. Something that has been on my mind as we have these discussions in class is the question around is a project manager best served as a function of one’s job (meaning I work in HR, but also manage a project) or ones complete job. The problem with it being a function of a job is that it never fully takes priority, so if that is the case why are so many project managers structured in this way? It seems that being dedicated is more beneficial for success, but can leave you disjointed or out of touch with the rest of the organization (becoming too narrow focused on one project). The concepts provided in the skunk works team are interesting and I would argue are important for any project manager to follow, as decision making and keeping wounded projects alive are everyday struggles in almost every project team.

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