The Skunk Works

The Skunk Works

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To take bold steps, to achieve audacious goals, and to cope with rapidly changing times – for me, every organisation, and individual, should be creating their own skunkworks.

What do I mean by ‘skunkworks’?

To explain its name, I need to go back to World War II. As air battles raged and America felt the need to aid its European allies, aerospace giants Lockheed created an idea incubator to develop urgent solutions to critical war problems. For added security, they intentionally set up their innovation research and development centre in a tent next to a plastics factory that pumped out disgusting smells. Lockheed R&D staff named it after the vile-smelling “Skunk Works” factory in the popular comic strip of the time, ‘Li’l Abner’.

Within only 143 days, the team in the tent had designed and built America’s first jet fighter.

Not only that, but a model for rapid innovation was developed, which companies still use today. Raytheon, DuPont, Walmart and Nordstrom use skunk works to innovate. In the early 1980s, Steve Jobs leased a building behind a restaurant in Silicon Valley, installed twenty brilliant designers, and created the first Macintosh computer.

What we are trying to create with The Dandelion Project in Guernsey, along with a small number of like-minded change-makers, is a skunk works that will revolutionise our society. And to that end, we have studied the principles of effective skunk works, and how to put them into practice.

‘Going skunk’ means providing an environment where a small group of individuals can escape the routine, in order to:

1 Concentrate on huge goals.

These help to focus our attention, making us more persistent. It increases motivation and helps our resilience to carry on when we fail. The Dandelion Project has a mission to make Guernsey the best place to live on earth by 2020.

2 Work in isolation.

Getting the innovation team away from routine organisational bureaucracy stimulates risk-taking, encourages off-the-wall ideas, and counteracts organisational inertia and fear of change. This is possibly the most important factor in skunkworks’ success.

In the case of individual entrepreneurs, for optimum success they also need a buffer between themselves and the rest of society. This is why The Dandelion Project works outside of government, and tries to design things in ways that don’t need government.

3 Get fast feedback and rapid iteration.

Have a strategy to handle risk and learn from mistakes. Successful companies release a “minimum viable product” – only a step from a prototype; get immediate feedback from customers; incorporate this into the next iteration; release a slightly upgraded version, and repeat. This agile process takes weeks, instead of years, of design iteration and produces results meeting and exceeding customer expectations. This is why The Dandelion Project launches test projects, rather than wastes time planning detailed projects. 10 experiments can cost less than 1 tender document, delivering far more.

4 Offer intrinsic rewards that are emotionally satisfying.

When we want to drive performance in typical organisations, we usually offer classic extrinsic rewards: bonuses (money) and promotions (money & prestige). But increasingly, research shows that once people’s basic needs are catered for, extrinsic rewards lose their effectiveness and can actually destroy the high-level, creative, conceptual abilities that are central to economic and social progress. Instead, to truly motivate, emotional satisfaction becomes far more critical. In particular:

  • AUTONOMY: the desire to steer our own ship (self-management)
  • MASTERY: the desire to steer it well  (skills challenge and perfection)
  • PURPOSE: the need for the journey to mean something (sense of purpose in work, or in life)

With these rewards in sight, motivation is assured, and with all these conditions in place, massive innovation can be achieved. At present, The Dandelion Project is run entirely by volunteers, who work on areas they are extremely passionate about, in their free time.

Skunkworks have produced the most amazing successes in modern history. Some of the best organisations in the world have skunkworks, including Google. The Google X lab facility aims to improve technologies by a factor of 10, and started in 2010 by developing a self-driving car. Other Google X projects include: drone delivery; eyewear that includes a screen and camera; contact lenses that monitor glucose; Project Loon: internet service via balloons; an artificial neural network (speech recognition and vision), and others.

It’s amazing what can be achieved when the skunkworks model is used. Importantly, the same philosophy can be applied to any organisation or individual looking to go bold and to accomplish the impossible. And we do live in the era where the impossible is now possible. We need to create organisational and individual structures to capitalise on that.

The Dandelion Project is the first attempt in the world to build Google X for Government – albeit without asking permission to do it. There will come a time when every government in the world will invest some of their resources directly into things like The Dandelion Project, to test new radical ideas.

In my own life, I dedicate a large proportion of my time to self-experimentation and to exploring new personal fronteers. It may slow me down in the short term, but in the long term, it fuels my personal progression. This kind of life experimentation has a place in the life of someone following a standard career path, too.

The real question is – why do this? My answer is that we are on the cusp of a tidal wave of technology-driven change. Every single organisation and individual in the world will be impacted by that change. If you are not set up to adapt quickly, you will struggle.

The lifespan of organisations and careers is strictly time-limited. Robotics, artificial intelligence, biotech, nanotech etc bring huge opportunities. They also bring with them huge existential risks that today’s governmental, corporate and individual systems are not designed for.

Building incubators to implement ideas quickly is one of the few ways to both capitalise on, and protect us from, the future.

To going skunk.


p.s. I would love to hear your examples and idea for how external innovation has improved any organisation or individual.

**If you want to read more about making bold change happen read Bold by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.

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add a comment
  1. How does the “short feedback loop” translate for “government” projects ? Do you try many experiments on small groups, use a large group (to have the breadth of real world examples) but for “mundane” / “low risk” tasks ?

    Would love to hear details !

    Have fun, good luck !

  2. Sahira Ward says

    Marc loved the post. I need the skunk work idea for my incredible edible team. We are meeting on 2nd May to organise our Big Lunch can I talk to you before that just to get this skunk work idea straight in my head please. xx

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