Create a Skunk Team

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on

Excerpt from The Pocket Guide to Making Stuff Better

When an organization gets large, it often, by necessity, becomes bogged down by the requirements to keep itself moving. Too much red tape, too many people to talk to, or too many layers of control slow down the progress that could be made. To combat the bureaucratic nature of large organizations, Lockheed Martin (large private defense contractor) created a Skunk Team. It was a small team of intelligent people with a high level of autonomy, tasked with special projects. The goal of the team was (and still is) to be able to operate without worrying about the broader scope of the company. The team was given the budget and freedom to explore, research and design new products as rapidly as possible. Lockheed’s skunk team delivered the most significant planes in their line up, including the SR-71 Blackbird, U-2 spy plane, F-117 Nighthawk, and F-22 Raptor. Having the autonomy to make decisions and spend money quickly, unimpeded by the larger organization, Lockheed was able to make huge developments significantly faster than if the whole organization were involved.

On a similar note, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) has a skunk team that developed Waymo (self driving cars), Google Glasses (Augmented reality glasses), and Google Loon (internet for everyone). As your business grows to a large size and inevitably feels the growing pains, creating a skunk team to tackle special projects will add a ton of long term value. 

Step one to creating the skunk team is to get leadership on board. Whoever the decision making team is, whether a board, a C-suite, or a few company owners, they have to grant permission and approve a budget up front. Once that’s done, a team of highly capable A players needs to be established. They need to be removed from everything else they are working on and focus 100% on the skunk works project(s). They should even be working in a different space to avoid distractions from the rest of the business. 

The size of the skunk team should be as small as possible to maximize the speed they can move. A team of 5-20 people, depending on the scope of the projects is likely the right size. Too many people on the skunk team will defeat the purpose of the team. 

In terms of organizational structure, the ideal lean structure was laid out by James Womack and Daniel Jones in their book Lean Thinking. Appendix C is a revision of their layout, modified to include a Skunk Team. The skunk team is distinctly and intentionally separated from the rest of the team. 

If you’re working at a small company that doesn’t have the capacity or resources to add a skunk team, the second option on the table is to create an internal ideas lab (with or without permission) to dedicate time, outside regular hours, to focus on some new project. A handful of sous chefs, for example, might consider spending a couple hours a week developing new menu ideas that they can bring to life in the restaurant once completed. A small sales team may uncover a huge opportunity by spending time outside of work coming up with a new approach that isn’t being considered by the current sales managers (who may be a bit stuck in their old school ways). 

In 2005, author David Foster Wallce delivered a commencement speech to Kenyon College called, “This is Water.” He starts the speech off with this quip;

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Wallace goes on to clarify the point of the anecdote;

The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.

Why are we sharing this story here? In part because the value of a skunk team is the ability to work outside the trenches of the day to day work. The other point I wish to make here is that even if your company does not have the resources to dedicate to a skunk team, it does have the resources to call out whatever obvious realities are impeding progress. 

If needed, be your own skunk team.

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