Last week we conducted a mini poll to see how many of you have skunkworks teams at work. Turns out, with the exception of one, none of us formally have skunkworks teams, or a team of people whose sole job is to come up with new and innovative products or services.

The reason I wanted to know is because I’ve been reading a lot about skunkworks teams and why they don’t work, in any sense of the term. The example that resonated with me the most was one from Harvard Business Review

“The Razr phone is a case in point. It was developed by a small group within Motorola, with strong support from CEO Ed Zander and CMO Geoffrey Frost. Frost noted that company research showed that there was a total world market of two million units for a $499 phone, the most expensive phone that anyone had yet sold. The conventional thinking was that this would be a halo product for Motorola — glamorous but low-volume and money-losing.

Of course the Razr went on to become one of the biggest selling phones of all time, selling over two million units in the U.K. alone. The traditional market research relied on historical precedent, so it missed an inflection point occurring right then in 2004 when mobiles shifted from being utilitarian devices to fashion accessories. The Razr capitalized on that shift brilliantly, and catapulted Motorola from mobile phone has-been to powerhouse.”

But let’s be real – this kind of thing happens only once. It’s nearly impossible for us, as human beings, to be put in a room and told, “Come up with something brilliant” and we do.

So there are likely three scenarios, right? The first is making innovation and creativity part of everyone’s jobs; the second is creating a process for developing innovation (i.e. first we did this, then we did this, then we did this) in order to make it repeatable; and the third is to have a dedicated team (don’t worry, Erik Hare…I won’t say skunkworks again).

But, according to a second Harvard Business Review article (I like reading them, what can I say?), none of these work. They say if it’s part of everyone’s job, you get a lot of little ideas accomplished, if there is a process it really only works for improvements (and really, if you have a process for innovation, does that really work?), and we’ve already discussed the issue with the third option.

I disagree with their first option claim. I do think you can build a company culture that is open to innovation and creative ideas. I’m not saying you reward innovation with money (like I wrote about a couple of weeks ago). Rather making it part of the company culture; part of the values. If you lead a business, this decision has to come from you and you have to live, breathe, and value innovation at all levels. If you don’t lead a business, there is a huge opportunity for you to get in front of the executives to affect change.

As we move toward a bigger vision at Arment Dietrich, we’re redefining our values. A week ago I asked everyone to take a week to think about the values we currently live and the values they’d like us to live. We discussed those values in our staff meeting yesterday. Do you know that every, single person said we already live entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to create ideas and execute them? Does that mean we’re the bee’s knees in terms of a replicable culture? Not yet. But we’re working on it and I think it’s going to work.

Not every idea is carried through, which I think is the difference in what HBR says won’t work in the first model. But you can bet that if the idea fits the vision and moves us more quickly to where we’re going, the person who had the idea has full autonomy to do with it what she or he wants. Innovation and creativity is part of our values and it’s part of everyone’s jobs. We think it will work.

What do you think?

* Cartoon courtesy of Harper’s Magazine

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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