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Your project is behind schedule; your limited budget is being consumed at an alarming rate; you are losing the race to reach the marketplace; bureaucratic orders from above drain your resources and make you feel like you are moving in slow motion toward your goal. What do you do? Why not do what General Groves and Dr. Oppenheimer did in 1942? Do what Lockheed is doing today. Return those software project management textbooks to the bookshelf. Let them stand ready to give advice when you can afford to move at slow-but-sure tortoise speed to the finish line. Until then, create a “skunkworks” and brace yourself for success.

What Is It?

Skunkworks is a modus operandi, an approach to problem-solving in which the goal is everything. All that hinders its achievement is discarded. All that advances project goals is adopted. A skunkworks is also an environment. In it, amazing engineering feats are performed by a small group of high-achieving experts addicted to problem-solving.

Skunkworks are established institutions at places like Lockheed-Martin, where they are used to complete crucial projects ahead of schedule and under budget. What makes them work is a blend of talent, simplicity, personal chemistry, and common sense directed toward a single mission: get the job done. Some of what characterizes a successful skunk works is a single-minded focus on the goal, an able leader, a talented team, an absence of unwieldy bureaucracy, and a motivating reward system.

What Makes Them Special?

To succeed, a skunkworks needs a manager who can think outside the proverbial box, who understands the underlying technology, and is respected by the team. Skunkwork managers must also be trusted by those to whom they report, who must grant them quasi-dictatorial power to make decisions in all matters, technical and financial. Skunkworks managers earn their keep by shielding their team from responsibilities not directly related to the mission. They provide the tools the team needs when they are needed. They remove obstructions. In short, they enable the team to maintain a single-minded focus on the problem at hand. Team members are selected first for their problem-solving skills. They must also be capable of working harmoniously with fellow team members. No prima donnas or Rasputins are allowed here.

Quick lines of communication, informal forums for deciding design questions, and freedom from oppressive reporting chores are characteristic. So also is esprit de corps and a reward system with bonuses linked to completion dates, project costs, and product quality.

Simple and Effective

I suspect that skunkworks projects, though they may not have been called such, have given birth to countless engineering successes, great and small, long before Groves, Oppenheimer, and Lockheed arrived to usher in the atomic age or the first operational jet fighter. Each element of the skunkworks model serves to encourage productivity, provide an atmosphere in which good ideas can flourish, and effectively bring to bear the collective intellectual weight of the whole. Its a simple idea, and simple ideas work!