Skunkworks is a term generally used to describe a small group brought together in a relatively private, autonomous environment to design and test a new idea. Typically, a skunkworks unit has more freedom and support than the typical organizational unit. It is a forum for breakthroughs.
The concept was first used during World War II by Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects Division in Burbank to design the P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter. The incubator was set up in a closely guarded tent right beside a plastics factory. The foul-smelling aroma from the factory led R&D workers to recall the “Skonk Works” factory outside Dogpatch in the then-popular Li’l Abner comic strip. The Lockheed unit later was moved to Palmdale, CA. The concept expanded to mean mission-driven mavericks who thrive in a setting that supports the pursuit of innovation.
What kind of leader might these mavericks need in today’s organizational settings, hungry for breakthroughs? Might it be more than the well-worn notion of empowerment? Instead of starting with the leader, I looked at highly successful mavericks to uncovered the common features of the leaders under whom they thrived. Three new concepts emerged—light, un-governing, and animation.
Innovation Leaders Are Light
I was about to teach the customer segment of a Six Sigma class for a Skunkworks group at the Lockheed Martin Palmdale facility. I was a part of consulting team bringing six sigma and lean thinking to the company. The LM21 program would be a crucial part of their success in winning the $200 billion defense contract to build the F-35 (or Joint Strike Fighter) aircraft. A noticeably happy man walked in as students were taking their seats. His countenance lit up the room and was mirrored on the faces of everyone present. He was obviously someone super important to this class.
My co-instructor, a retired brigadier general who instantly recognized the visitor, asked if he would like to speak. He smiled, nodded, “no,” and took a seat at one of the small group tables. The candor in class discussion was no less forthright and spirited than before he arrived. When I spoke with Mr. Big at the first break, he was humble, attentive, and extremely optimistic! He was intensely curious about the class. I later learned he was EVP in charge of the entire Aeronautical Division and highly regarded by the thousands under his leadership. He was light personified.
Skunk-loving leaders are about light. That word carries a double meaning—weight and radiance. “Light” leaders don’t take themselves seriously, preferring to channel focus toward a clear mission. They are quick to spotlight and serve others, not themselves. “Light” leaders illuminate a vision and brighten the path toward vital results. “Light” leaders are champions of curiosity, fair-dealings, and wholesome relationships. They drive fear out of the workplace. This Lockheed-Martin celebrity could have taken a seat in the back as an observer and authority. He opted to be a partner with other learners at a table. “Leadership,” wrote Denise Robinson, retired CEO of Campbell Soup,” is service to others.”
Innovation Leaders Are Un-Governors
McDonald’s is famous for its careful faithfulness to their offerings and practices. Their franchises rely on central control from corporate that provides “a rule for everything,” When I consulted with McDonald’s at their headquarters in Oak Brook at the time, I was struck by the military-like precision that seemed to govern everything. The lobby of the world headquarters contained a small museum on the life of founder Ray Kroc. The more I learned about him, the more I realized he was an un-governor, perpetually on the hunt for barriers to productivity and obstacles of success.
However, it was not corporate that originated the decision to offer breakfast; it was one of their customers—a franchisee named Herb Peterson. Franchisees are customers to corporate; the burger buyer is more of a consumer to corporate. In 1972, Peterson showed Ray Kroc a breakfast sandwich idea he had created and tested. He had a local blacksmith fashion a ring to keep the egg and yolk contained while being cooked. Kroc loved the idea and asked Peterson for other breakfast ideas.
The real backstory is the willingness of Ray Kroc to “un-governor” the imagination capacity of franchisees (his customers) to contribute to the company’s venturing into new creations. McDonald’s was the first quick-service restaurant chain to offer breakfast, starting with Peterson’s Egg McMuffin. And, how did this “share control” risk turn out? McDonald’s today is making over $5 billion a year on breakfast alone.
Skunkworks’ actions depend on leaders willing to remove retardant restrictions and ingenuity-limiting practices. Skunk-loving leaders’ drive is a mission, their default is to trust, and their instinct is to support. Cheryl Bachelder, retired CEO of AFC Enterprises, the parent company of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, wrote, “The leader must have both – the courage to take the people to a daring destination and the humility to selflessly serve others on the journey.”
Innovation Leaders are Animators
Texans view the Alamo in San Antonio as scared ground. Both historical fact and legendary stories tell us many heroes died at the Alamo. None personified great leadership more than Davy Crockett. Leadership at the Alamo was less about rank and more about soul. Eyewitness Enrique Esparza was quoted in the May 12, 1907 San Antonio Express as saying: “Crockett seemed to be the leading spirit. He was everywhere. Coronal Travis was chief in command, but he depended more upon the judgment of Crockett and that brave man’s coolness than upon his own.”
Davy Crockett held no official position at the Battle of the Alamo. His legacy is one that history books describe as a person who engendered trust and inspired passion. Coronal Jim Bowie wrote in a letter to Governor Henry Smith, “David Crockett has been animating the men to do their duty.”
Skunk-loving leaders are grounded in animation. The word “animation” means movement—innovation leaders renew when they are visible and involved. Animation means vibrant—innovation leaders renew when they demonstrate energy and excitement. Animation implies a presence. “You can pretend to care, you cannot pretend to be there,” wrote Texas Bix Bender in his book Don’t Squat with Yer Spurs On! Animation also means upbeat—innovation leaders renew when they show optimism and confidence in what is possible. They are sponsors of growth, critics of comfort zones; and, advocates for breakthroughs. “Growth and comfort do not coexist,” said Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM.
The CEO of a small company was meeting with her direct reports at their weekly gathering. “How can we increase our company’s performance by 10%?” she asked the group. The energized audience began brainstorming ways to cut costs, boost sales, reduce waste, and tighten expenses. In the middle of their spirited ideation, she stopped them. “Let me ask a different question,” she said. “How can we increase it by 100%?” The room was silent for a minute. Finally, the COO said, “You can’t get there from here. We would have to completely reinvent how we perform.”
Such is the reality of today’s business world. We have reached the limits of incremental improvement; we need innovation and breakthroughs. As the catalyst for ingenuity, we need leaders tasked with and talented at the care and feeding of skunkworks.