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Innovation Models: Skunk Works at Lockheed Martin

Skunk Works is a term used to describe a small, innovative group within an organization that is tasked with developing new products or technologies. The concept was popularized by the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, a division of the aerospace company that was responsible for developing some of the most advanced aircraft in history, including the U-2 spy plane and the SR-71 Blackbird.

The Skunk Works model is characterized by a high degree of autonomy and a focus on rapid prototyping and iterative development. These teams are often given a high level of freedom to explore new ideas and approaches, and are typically given the resources and support they need to move quickly and make rapid progress.

One key aspect of the Skunk Works model is the emphasis on secrecy and discretion. These teams are often working on highly sensitive projects, and as a result, they are often isolated from the rest of the organization. This helps to ensure that ideas and technologies remain protected until they are ready to be revealed to the wider world.

Historical Background

The term "Skunk Works" was coined by Kelly Johnson, the chief engineer at Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works division in the 1940s. Johnson developed the concept as a way to describe a small, agile team that could work independently and quickly to develop new technologies and products.

Kelley Johnson (February 27, 1910 – December 21, 1990)

The Skunk Works division at Lockheed Martin was established in 1943 to develop a high-altitude reconnaissance plane for the US military. The team, which was made up of just a handful of engineers and technicians, worked in secret to design and build the U-2 spy plane, which was used extensively during the Cold War.

F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter

Over the years, the Skunk Works division at Lockheed Martin has developed a reputation for innovation and excellence, and has played a key role in the development of many of the world's most advanced aircraft, including the SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter.

SR-71 Blackbird

The concept of Skunk Works has been widely adopted by other organizations in a variety of industries, and is now seen as a key component of innovation and product development in companies such as Tesla, Apple, and Google. Today, Skunk Works teams can be found in companies and organizations around the world, working on a wide range of projects, from new technologies and products to software and business processes.

Successful Products

Some successful products that have come out of the Skunk Works division at Lockheed Martin include:
  • U-2 spy plane: Developed in the 1950s, the U-2 spy plane was used extensively during the Cold War for high-altitude reconnaissance missions.
  • SR-71 Blackbird: Developed in the 1960s, the SR-71 Blackbird was a high-altitude, supersonic reconnaissance plane that set numerous speed and altitude records and was used extensively during the Cold War.
  • F-117 Nighthawk: Developed in the 1970s and 1980s, the F-117 Nighthawk was the first stealth fighter to be deployed by the US military, and played a key role in several military campaigns, including the Gulf War.

Other successful products that have come out of Skunkworks-style teams in other companies include:
  • iPod: Developed by Apple's secret "Project Purple" team, the iPod revolutionized the music industry and helped to establish Apple as a leading technology company.
  • Tesla Roadster: Developed by Tesla's "Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan" team, the Roadster was the first electric sports car to be produced by the company, and helped to establish Tesla as a leader in electric vehicle technology.
  • Google Glass: Developed by Google's "Project Glass" team, Google Glass was a pioneering product in the field of augmented reality, although it ultimately did not achieve widespread commercial success.

Key Principles

The key principles of Skunk Works can vary somewhat depending on the specific organization and context, but some common principles include:

Small, agile team: Skunk Works teams are typically small, often consisting of just a few dozen individuals. This allows them to be more agile and responsive, and to make rapid progress on projects.

Autonomy and independence: Skunk Works teams are often given a high degree of autonomy and independence, allowing them to make decisions and pursue ideas without interference from outside forces.

Rapid prototyping and iterative development: Skunk Works teams are often focused on rapid prototyping and iterative development, allowing them to quickly test and refine ideas and prototypes.

Secrecy and discretion: Skunk Works teams are often working on highly sensitive projects, and as a result, they are often isolated from the rest of the organization and operate in secrecy.

Focus on results: Skunk Works teams are typically focused on delivering results, and are often given the resources and support they need to achieve their goals.

Encouragement of risk-taking: Skunk Works teams are often encouraged to take calculated risks and pursue projects that may be too risky or experimental for more traditional teams.

Collaboration and teamwork: Skunk Works teams often rely on collaboration and teamwork to achieve their goals, and may involve individuals from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds.

Advantages and Limitations of the Skunk Works Model

Some advantages of the Skunk Works model include:
  • Agility and speed: The small size and high degree of autonomy of Skunk Works teams allows them to move quickly and make rapid progress on projects.
  • Innovation and experimentation: The Skunk Works model encourages innovation and experimentation, and allows organizations to pursue projects that may be too risky or experimental for more traditional teams.
  • Focus on results: Skunk Works teams are typically focused on delivering results, and are given the resources and support they need to achieve their goals.
  • Ability to take calculated risks: The Skunk Works model allows organizations to take calculated risks and pursue projects that may be too risky or experimental for more traditional teams.
Some limitations of the Skunk Works model include:
  • Difficulty maintaining secrecy: It can be challenging to maintain the high level of secrecy and discretion required for Skunk Works projects, especially in today's interconnected world.
  • Difficulty maintaining autonomy: It can be difficult to maintain the sense of autonomy and independence that is critical to the success of Skunk Works teams, as they may be subject to interference from other parts of the organization.
  • Potential for isolation: The isolation of Skunk Works teams from the rest of the organization can lead to a lack of integration with the rest of the company, which can be a disadvantage in certain situations.
  • Risk of failure: The focus on risk-taking and experimentation means that Skunk Works projects may be more prone to failure than more traditional projects.
  • Resource constraints: Skunk Works teams may have limited resources compared to larger, more traditional teams, which can constrain their ability to achieve their goals.
The Skunk Works model has proven to be a highly effective way for organizations to pursue new ideas and technologies in a fast-paced, agile manner. By forming small, autonomous teams with a focus on rapid prototyping and iterative development, organizations are able to explore a wide range of possibilities and pursue projects that may be too risky or experimental for more traditional teams. 

While the Skunk Works model is not without its challenges, such as the difficulty in maintaining secrecy and autonomy, the benefits of this approach have been demonstrated time and time again and it is likely to continue to be a key component of innovation for organizations around the world.

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To learn how leading Fortune Global 500 companies such as ABB, Bosch, Google, Samsung, and NetApp have used Innomantra's Functional Innovation Methodology to turbocharge their idea management process, schedule a meeting today at calendly.com/innomantra.

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