Skunk Works Projects: The Super Secret Approach To Innovation

Steve Jobs' strategy for innovation? Find the next big breakthrough in your business by following the Skunk Works principles.
December 06, 2012

When a well-worn pattern is broken, creativity emerges. It's the broken pattern that makes us sit up, take notice and pay attention. We think differently, more resourcefully.

Let’s say, for example, that you get a flat tire while you’re driving. If you’re normal, you curse out loud. That curse signals a break from the ordinary, which, being creatures of habit, we don’t much care for. But now suddenly you’re wide-awake, with senses on high alert, and you’re aware of a problem requiring your full attention to solve it. Suddenly everything you normally take for granted becomes vitally important: how the car handles, the shoulder of the road, safe spots to pull over, traffic around you, tire-changing tools in your trunk, immediate avenues for help.

These are all the resources you need for a creative solution. They were there all along, but it was the break that brought them to your attention.  

This, in fact, is the very magic behind “skunk works” projects. Most people have heard the term, but not everyone knows its genesis. 

Break Away

In 1943, the U.S. War Department hired Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to build a working jet fighter prototype, giving them just 180 days to do so. There was only one man for the job: 33-year-old Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, Lockheed’s talented but eccentric chief engineer. Kelly Johnson ran Lockheed’s innovative Advanced Development Program for nearly 45 years, from its inception in 1943 to 1975.

Challenging constraints shaped the project: build a jet fighter prototype that would fly at 600 miles per hour—the edge of the speed of sound and 200 miles per hour faster than the current Lockheed P-38 propeller plane—in 180 days.

The only problem was, Lockheed was out of floorspace, as the entire complex was devoted for 24/7 production of the current planes.

The jet fighter project was to be conducted with top secrecy, so Kelly decided to leverage the space constraint. He broke away from the Lockheed main operation, taking 23 of the best design engineers and 30 mechanics with him, and set up camp in a rented circus tent next to a foul-smelling plastics factory, figuring the odor would help keep nosy barkers away.

The whole setup reminded people of Al Capp’s “L’il Abner” comic strip, and the “Skonk Works,” a dilapidated factory located on the remote outskirts of Capp’s fictional backwoods town, Dogpatch, and run by one Big Barnsmell, the lonely “inside man” no one would ever want to be at the Skonk Works.

In Capp’s comics, scores of Dogpatch locals were done in every year by the toxic fumes of concentrated "skonk oil," which Big and his cousin Barney brewed and barreled daily by grinding dead skunks and worn shoes into a constantly smoldering still, for a purpose that Capp never disclosed.

One day a designer picked up a ringing phone and answered it with "Skonk Works.” The name stuck, and it wasn’t long before even those working at the main Lockheed plant were calling it that too.

Perhaps it was the stink that drove Kelly’s secret team to design and build the prototype for the P-80 Shooting Star—nicknamed Lulu Belle—in a mere 143 days … 37 days ahead of schedule.

Lockheed management agreed to let Kelly keep his elite design and development team running, as long as it did not interfere in any way with Kelly’s primary duties as Lockheed’s chief engineer, and was kept on a shoestring budget. Kelly hand-selected a few of the brightest designers and moved into a building known only as Building 82.

Over the next 15 years, Skonk Works became part of the Lockheed lexicon. In 1960, when Al Capp's publisher objected to Lockheed’s use of Skonk Works, rather than abandon the name, Lockheed changed it to Skunk Works and registered both the name and the cartoon Skunk logo as trademarks, thus becoming the official alias of the Lockheed Advanced Development Program.

Modern Day Skunk Works

Thus was born the de facto standard for running top secret projects among the world’s most innovative companies, and the model Steve Jobs used in launching the Macintosh division of Apple.

In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson tells how Jobs cherry-picked a team of about 20 “pirates,” as he referred to them, and seceded from the Apple main campus. He relocated the team to a small building three blocks away, next to a Texaco station. The two-story brown-shingled building became known as Texaco Towers.

Jobs kept the renegade spirit alive with his maxim “It’s better to be a pirate than join the navy.” Jobs actively recruited rebels and swashbucklers—talented but audacious individuals who could move fast and get things done.

Over the years, the term Skunk Works has come to refer to any effort involving an elite special team that breaks away from the larger organization to work autonomously on an advanced or secret project, usually tasked with breakthrough innovation on limited budgets and under aggressive timelines.

The term has become official, and is defined in the 4th edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language as “an often secret experimental laboratory or facility for producing innovative products.”

Kelly Johnson had three simple management principles supporting a single fundamental belief: Don’t build something you don’t believe in.

His three principles:

1. It's more important to listen than to talk.

2. Even a timely wrong decision is better than no decision.

3. Don’t halfheartedly wound problems—kill them dead.

 If you're looking for the next big breakthrough in your business, try the Kelly Johnson method of breaking away.

Photo: Thinkstock