The exciting world of Skunkworks projects
What do Linux, Unix, Macintosh, and Windows have in common? They are all results of an approach called “Skunkworks”. Sometimes in software development, a small dedicated group works outside an organization's development structure to develop a highly innovative or strategically important project. This team can even be located offsite, separated from the rest of the organization, and this happens mainly for radical innovation. Many of Medius’ significant projects were also created this way, sometimes almost in the shadow of a larger project.
What is a Skunkworks project?
In simple terms, it can be compared to a group of musicians experimenting with new sounds and styles of music. They are given complete freedom and resources to push the boundaries of what is being done. They may try out new instruments, unconventional techniques, or mix genres in unexpected ways. They are looking to create fresh, exciting music, just as a Skunkworks project aims to develop new, innovative solutions.
A team working on a Skunkworks project may have a specific vision or goal, but they are also open to taking risks and trying things that may not have been done before. As you can see from this example, a Skunkworks project can lead an organization to competitive advantage and differentiate the organization from the others in the industry.
The term ‘Skunk Works’ originated with a group of engineers at Lockheed Martin during World War II who were tasked with developing a new fighter plane in a short period of time. Engineers were given a separate building and a great deal of autonomy to work on the project. This approach allowed them to work quickly and efficiently without being bogged down by bureaucracy.
Benefits and drawbacks of Skunkworks
As it is with everything, Skunkworks also comes with a set of pros and cons.
- Innovation: Without being held back by the constraints and rules of a large organization, the team can try out new technologies and ideas, which can lead to more innovative solutions.
- Agility: Operating with a higher degree of autonomy, these projects can be more agile and responsive. The team can iterate on ideas and pivot without waiting for approval.
- Competitive advantage: Successful Skunkworks projects can lead to the development of new products, technologies, or processes that give your organization a competitive advantage over your rivals.
- Risk: Working on new, untested ideas or technologies is riskier. A failed project will not bring back the resources spent on a project.
- Lack of accountability: Skunkworks teams may only be held accountable for their progress with apparent oversight or reporting.
- Resistance to change: All large organizations are victims of opposition to change and skepticism. Investing in the status quo can be more feasible and lead to pushback that can slow progress or limit the project's impact.
Looking at the benefits and drawbacks, it becomes clear that Skunkworks is a promising way to approach the challenges. It comes down to the mindset of an organization. A large organization should not be an excuse to embrace the status quo. Being open to change and supportive of disruptive ideas can help large organizations stay on top and bring new technologies and innovation into the world.
Because the best way to predict the future is to create it.