The incredible story of Skunk Works or how to create high speed projects
The incredible story of Skunk Works or how to create high speed projects

The incredible story of Skunk Works or how to create high speed projects

75 years ago Lockheed Aircraft Corporation built the first high-speed fighter jet for the US Army. Under the pressure of a 180-day deadline and compelling project constraints, Lockheed’s elite team – known as Skunk Works ever since, handed over the world-class aircraft – XP-80 Shooting Star – 37 days sooner than expected. 

How did they make the impossible possible? It took one leader with a vision, a team of brave experts and a radical approach to building something that hadn’t been done before. In the years after, Apple, Google, IBM, Microsoft, and many other successful companies trusted Lockheed’s Skunk Works approach to creating breakthrough products.

Read through to find out the story of Skunk Works and how this 75-year-old way of quickly creating products that are ahead of their time ensures an effective path to innovation – regardless of industry or business.

The story of Skunk Works

In 1943, Lockheed Aircraft Corporation was hired by the US War Department to secretly build a high-speed fighter aircraft that would counter the rapidly growing German threat. 

For many reasons, the assignment seemed very much like mission impossible:

  • The jet needed to be ready in 180 days;
  • It was expected to fly at 600 miles per hour – which was 200 miles per hour faster than the current Lockheed P-38 propeller plane;
  • There was no floor space left for the project, as all the facilities were accommodating Lockheed’s 24/7 production of current planes;
  • The team had to work on a shoestring budget.

Lockheed trusted its talented Chief Engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson to handle the project as long as it did not compromise his main responsibilities. Enthusiastic 33-year-old Kelly agreed to this new mission, but decided to do it his way. Eventually, this project marked the birth of what would become the Skunk Works – a dedicated engineering lab for top-secret and innovative programs at Lockheed Martin.

“We are not defined by the technologies that we create, but by the process in which we create them.”
 Lockheed Chief Engineer, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson

Because of the secrecy around the project and the space constraint, Kelly broke away from the company’s main operations together with 23 handpicked designers and engineers and 30 mechanics. The secret team relocated on the site of a rented circus close to a plastics factory that smelled quite bad. The setup reminded people of a somewhat similar location called “Skonk Works” which appeared in a comic strip that was very popular at the time. 

The reference soon became the nickname of the project and later on the official alias of the Lockheed Advanced Development Programs. Because of copyright conflicts with the comic strip publisher, in 1960 Lockheed decided to change it to Skunk Works and registered both the name and the cartoon Skunk logo as trademark. 

Today you can find the term “skunk works” in any dictionary, mainly defined as “a small laboratory or department of a large company used for doing new scientific research or developing new products.” 

How to set up a skunk works team

Skunk Works is about doing business quick, quiet, and efficient. From the very start, it stood for innovation and for creating products that were ahead of their time. 

Everyone at Lockheed Martin believes that the elite team would not have been able to design and build the XP-80 jet fighter (nicknamed Lulu Belle) in only 143 days if Kelly had not broken the rules and challenged the bureaucratic system that hindered innovation.

P-80 may not have seen action in World War II, yet the timely delivery of the Shooting Star by Lockheed set the stage for the jet fighter’s early dominance during the Korean War as America’s front-line fighter. Kelly Johnson led Lockheed’s innovative Advanced Develop Programs for nearly 45 years, from its inception in 1943 to 1975.

Kelly’s vision is summarized in 14 rules that are fully disclosed on Lockheed Martin’s website. Some of them strictly apply to Lockheed military projects, and will not be the subject of this article.  The following rules, however, define a robust innovation framework and are bound to get any skunk works team to create disruptive solutions at incredible speed. 

Here’s what it takes to build a successful skunk works team:   

#1 Appoint one master of all  

Designate a leader and provide them with full control of the project, in all aspects. “He/she must only report to a division president or higher.” This move is only possible if there is trust. Without trust in the leader and his/her team, people outside the project, including the customer, will intervene in a counter-productive manner. 

#2 Viciously minimize the team

Allow the skunk works leader to break away from the parent organization with a small team of handpicked talented people. The smaller the team, the more productive the project. The main criteria of selection should be their talent, but also on their ability to move fast and get things done. The number of people on the project “must be restricted in an almost vicious manner”, somewhere between 10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems. 

#3 Collocate somewhere small

The team should be able to collocate in a small, yet well-equipped office. Co-location reinforces strong and productive team dynamics. People feel more comfortable when working close and face to face. Also, they can argue better, focusing more on creativity and results than on playing by the rules of the parent organization. 

#4 Stay away from outsiders

Make sure only the people involved in the project know about it. The location, subject, and progress of the project must remain a secret to the rest of the organization. “Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled by appropriate security measures.” Even if the nature of your product is not top-secret, let your team work under the radar, unconstrained by executive interference. This way you will not deal with unwanted delays. 

#5 Record your work, but not every step

There must be a minimum number of reports, but important work must be recorded thoroughly. Also, there should be a monthly cost review of what’s been spent but also on the estimated costs to the conclusion of the project. This way, you can stay on top of costs and expenditures, and you will have no surprises. 

#6 Deliver early and continuously

Ensure that the team can easily collaborate and iterate. They need to do prototypes, get feedback from the customer, reflect on it, adjust work and keep going. For this to happen, you need to set up a simple drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes. However, don’t get hung up on passing multiple inspections.

#7 Involve the whole team in the big picture

People get more creative and motivated when they have the big picture. This includes finances, quality, manufacturing, process, etc. When Lockheed’s XP-80 prototype took its first flight, every member of the Skunk Works team was present on the flight line. 

#8 Reward performance, not status

Because only a few people will be used in engineering, design and most other areas, you need to reward the team based on their performance, not the number of people they supervise.

A timeless innovation framework

With a high degree of autonomy, access to funds and exceptional freedom from the bureaucracy and the management constraints of the parent organizations, skunk works teams can truly attempt what has never been done and speed up innovation at an incredible rate. 

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”
US anthropologist, Margaret Mead

Over time, top companies borrowed this innovation framework from Lockheed and pioneered their industries:

  • Google’s skunk works division brought to life the space elevators, the robotics projects, and the self-driving car;  
  • In the ‘80s, IBM ran a skunk works project that resulted in the adaptation of personal computers to business needs and the release of the IBM PC, marking the start of IBM’s personal computer division;
  • Microsoft’s skunk works teams developed Kinect and Surface tablets and computers;
  • Steve Jobs also applied the renegade spirit of the Skunk Works in many pioneering projects, including the launch of the Macintosh division. Jobs actively recruited audacious designers that did not play by the rules and shared his belief that “it’s better to be a pirate than to join the navy.” Apple is famous for its design laboratory where a few handpicked designers work on very experimental materials that the world is not quite ready for.

Here at QUALITANCE we’re also strongly influenced by the Lockheed Skunk Works and rely on a custom skunk works framework. It has helped us move forward at full speed with breakthrough projects for IkeaVirgin, and many more. To get a glimpse of all our projects, visit our work here.

If you’re thinking about kicking off your own skunk works project, take Kelly Johnson’s advice and follow Lockheed’s model: be quick, be quiet and be on time. Meanwhile, take a look at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division today.

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