Skunkworks Woes

In the innovation age, a common gambit is the "Skunkworks" to do truly special programs. Unfortunately, this often leads to Product Management chaos

For the third time in the Dude's illustrious career, he has had a "Skunkworks" project dropped in his lap to finish. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of "Skunkworks" it is worth some time to read up on the most famous Skunkworks, run by Lockheed in Southern California, and the amazing aircraft it produced, including the U2 and SR71 spy planes.

In summary, a skunkworks project is one that is done separate from the normal part of the company, a dedicated team, resources, and safe funding that they don;t have to fight for, they are potentially an innovation incubator. But what about the output? In the real world (not defense contractors, with security, secrecy, and a humongous patron (i.e. the U.S. Government), when a skunkworks project drops, someone has to quickly get it ready for launch and market it.

The Dude's experience has been largely negative. In his latest episode, a skunkworks, under the radar project, not part of the plan of record, the project plans, or even the long range roadmap dropped into his lap. His initial task was to get it ready to announce publicly ... in 9 days.

Oh, and it wasn't complete, it was missing some key components. The internal naming clashed with the corporate guidelines. There was no market research on who might actually want to buy this. In short, it was a brainchild of a senior manager, in a brief meeting with a senior executive 9 months before, and a diversion of precious resources to develop a "product" that:

  • had no definition
  • had no natural market (or segment)
  • didn't fit with the strategic plan
  • bypassed all internal gates and governance rules

The Dude got the mechanics of the launch done, on time (and ruffled a LOT of feathers in doing so), and began the process of filling in the blanks. But, he has questions, and he learnt that nobody wants to own this, even the team the initiated the project.

While the Dude does believe that a well vetted innovation program that mimics a classic skunkworks is a good idea, he has yet to see one that delivered anything but headaches and disappointment. This one is no different.


Photo: The SR71 at sunset, you can clearly see the standing waves in the afterburner - lifted from the Lockheed-Martin website.

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