Gini Dietrich

Does Your Company Have a Skunkworks Team?

By: Gini Dietrich | September 14, 2010 | 

I’ve been reading a lot recently about skunkworks teams and why they don’t work. If you aren’t familiar, according to Wikipedia, “skunkworks is used to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects.” In other words, it’s a formal group of people who work solely on innovation – coming up with new ideas, products, and services.

How many of you work in a company that has a skunkworks team? How many of you own businesses with a skunkworks team? I’m actually curious enough that I think a poll is a good idea. Yes or no…does your company have a skunkworks team?

[poll id=”4″]

I’m going to wait for the results to finish the rest of this blog post. If the results are what I think they’ll be, I have a very interesting theory that could give companies a fourth option for empowering ALL employees to become part of the skunkworks team without having to form something special. If I’m wrong, well…I’ll report back after you take the poll. So take the poll!

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Well, technically speaking, I guess that defines our whole team! Being in such a custom/tech field, we are always “reinventing the wheel” so to speak! Our goal is to continue offering 100% custom applications, so that means always working on the next best thing. It seems advanced is always our word of the day, and our goal is always innovation!

    • That’s kind of proving my theory, Jennifer! So technically, no. But it’s the responsibility of everyone? How big is your company (employee-wise)?

      • Yes, it’s on everyone’s plate (even me the lone non-tech person!). There are 8 of us currently on staff.

  • Ces

    I am my own skunkworks …. so it kind of doesn’t count.

  • Mike Koehler

    Never heard the term, but seeing what it actually is, oh yeah, we have ’em. Don’t even get me started….

    • Mike, is it something that is a team’s separate job? Not something integrated into their other job, but a team whose sole focus is to innovate.

      • Mike Koehler

        We have both actually depending on what area they are in (Marketing, Sales, Supply Chain/Operations)and what is it they are trying to achieve and the longevity of the project. I have a much longer response as to why I’m not a fan of these for the most part, at least at my company, but I do not want to bog this all down. Unless you want me to then I’ll be happy to share.

  • I wish we had a team like that. I have been trying to make that my role for about 6 months now, however with so many other things to do, it is difficult to spend the time I’d like to on innovation.

    • Rich, so you would like to have innovation as part of your job, but it gets getting put on the back burner because you have a “real” job?

      • I think we are great at what we do. In fact, if I didn’t think that we were the best in the world at what we do, we’d be doing something else.

        That being said, I truly think there are so many more things that we can do to help even more people (and, since we are a for profit business, bring us more profits)but time just becomes a factor. I will come up with some great thoughts either on a morning run, in a Vistage meeting, or during the day when I am helping a client, but then it is back to the every day “real job” part of my day that has to get done. It is very hard to find the time (and sometimes the money)to take that half step back to take what will hopefully be three steps forward.

        I, at least, am lucky to have a pretty good support system of people who help me to do things like, oh, hire a social media intern to move us ahead with blogs, Twitter, and Facebook…something I would have never gotten to on my own.

  • Given I am on the “Innovation Team” at my new company, my answer is yes. I’ll be interested to see how you finish this blog…

  • We had a small skunk works team at a CRM technology company I worked at. I wasn’t a fan because it mainly involved the technical team, and the products they were creating were not on customer wants/needs. My perspective is if these teams aren’t created to take in customer feedback and innovate based on that, it’s all push and go sell. That wasn’t very successful at my company. Marketing and sales (other areas) were rarely involved in the process. When the team developed a product my first questions were “Who’s going to use this?” So I was a major buzz kill for them, ha. Since I’m no longer there I can’t vote but would have voted yes otherwise.

    • Anna,

      I have a background in a radio/tv and these 15 years of my life were honestly the best ever. I’ve never been around a more creative type of people in my life and my favorite part of or days would be coming up with wacky promotions or promotions for specific customers that needed to hit specific goals. Some of the crap that would come out of the teams mouths in these meetings, although hysterical, would have nothing to do with the end result. However, what it DID do is drive additional conversation that DID bring us to what would end up being an incredible promotion. You have to look at a “Skunkworks” group the same way….a lot of times, they will put out crap that has nothing that has any type of marketable idea…however, if it’s done properly, and they are truly giving autonomy to create, they will come out with that one thing that truly sets your company apart. You just have to be patient and realize the first 10 things will likely make no sense and/or be crap…you are banking on the 1 thing that really makes your company shine. Most people don’t have the stomach to wait for that though.

      The other part of this is employee loyalty. If you are giving your staff the impression that their creative ideas are truly shaping the company it will build a loyalty that a paycheck just can’t. Trust me on this.

  • Keena Lykins

    Innovation is the new entrepreneurial.

    I’ve interviewed this summer at two corporations that have innovation teams. These are formal groups/departments set up to develop the next big thing, be responsive to customer needs, etc., with a chain of command and annual goals. I have no idea how they work or if they work (I suspect it works well at one but not so well at the other).

    • I would be interested how they come up with annual goals if they have no clue what they are actually going to be working on? hehe

      I imagine it works like this:

      Suit: “So, what are our goals for the fiscal year?”
      Skunkworker: “We plan on coming up with the next big thing Sir.”
      Suit: “Oh Good…carry on.”

      • Keena Lykins

        LOL, Dallas. I imagine you’re right.

  • This is great gini… that is why when i bring up ideas i get looked at like i stink… skunkworks… love it.. we don’t have a formal team, but I do feel like i am working in this mode.. i will officially name the team skunkworks!

  • Let me say it before the team of lawyers notifies you:

    “Skunkworks” is a registered trademark of Lockheed that is vigorously defended. They do not want it to pass into common English.

    Having said that, I think the glory days of actual innovation at large companies ended the moment that management styles du jour became a key trendy thang. I know that I’m a solid curmudgeon on this (and that I’ll probably never get a job in Corporate USofA again!) but the need for conformity seems to greatly outweigh the desire for innovation at every large company I’ve ever heard a report from.

    • Gini, I think you should stick it to the man…if Lockheed Martin sends you a C&D, you totally ignore them! DON’T LET THE MAN BRING YOU DOWN! 😉

  • I hit a skunk once, and let me tell you..those things smell….

    I think the only way you can be truly innovative in your industry is by giving your staff a sense of autonomy. There are a lot of ways you can control the outcome and the potential pandemonium that can ensue from this. If any of our staff members have pet projects they want to work on, I NEVER stop them. As a matter of fact, I completely encourage the point where we have several racks set up for an internal testing lab. I’ve allowed employees to do Internet radio stations, set up gaming severs. They enjoy it, and they are picking up skills that help my business in the long run.

    • ..and not to sound cheap, but when I’m allowing them to run a game server in our data center, I’m sure they think twice before hitting me up for a raise…

  • New term for me. But I could see this working in Sweden. We’re good at working together quietly in the corridors, away from the glare of everything else going on around.

  • Not officially, no. However there are a small band of us who keep performing skunkwork-like things under the radar and hoping nobody notices, so I’m not sure how tovote.

  • Erik, I think Wikipedia would disagree that Lockheed is trying to keep the word to themselves, but if they come after me, I’ll just apologize. Based on everything I’ve read, it’s a pretty common term, just like Q–Tips or Kleenex.

    I think my theory was proved correct so I’ll blog about it next week. I don’t know why they actual poll won’t work. Guess I’m not a tech person, after all. 🙂

  • Pingback: Innovation and Creativity As Part of Everyone's Jobs | Spin Sucks()

  • There will be some really great people in this group. You need to figure out now how to attract them. A few skunk works projects like those described here might be just the thing to get your company focused on the future.

  • STvZ

    Hello everyone!

    I work with my partner in our thesis in “Skunkworks” and we think the main two problems in this Innovation Lab for companies are:

    a. The distance between the invention’s technological utility and the real market needs, and

    b. The property transference between the skunkwork team and the mainstream corporation.

    We need some companies as empirical data in order to know what to do and not to do. Could anyone help us?

    Thank you!