Skunk Works and Skunk Don'ts

Skunk Works is a term coined at the Advanced Development Programs of the aerospacial corporation Lockheed Martin and is used in business to refer to a special group of employees that take charge of a project with a high degree of autonomy, low or no bureaucracy, and high trust and confidentiality, even secrecy. It’s kind of the G.I. Joe for executing a project.

The original Lockheed facility was located adjacent to a plastic factory, to comment on the smell and the secrecy the projects, an engineer, Irving Culver, referred to the facility as "Skunk Works". The name stuck and the logo and term are now owned and patented by Lockheed Martin Corporation . They say the marks represent “(…) the research and development capability and cultural mindset that even today make the impossible happen.” The original Skunkworks teams are responsible for a number of famous aircraft designs, including the U-2, the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 Nighthawk, and the F-22 Raptor. (1)

I’ve always liked the term skunk works but for another reason. I imagine it represents the feeling of initial repulsion in some employees towards “outsiders” that come and take charge of a special project inside the organization. “What makes THEM so special?” "Who are THEY to tell ME what to do?"

As a business consultant I’ve experienced that sometimes employees do not welcome support, much less instructions, from an outside team. Although it is not actually skunk works because of being an outsourced service, it does involve some kind of "elite-team" in charge of a project. Company owners or CEO’s empower consultants, that even though we do not take actions without the client’s consent, we do have to implement changes and “make things happen” as part of our job. This means sometimes urging employees to work on a specific matter or making them follow new processes, tools or directions.

During a process analysis as a Jr. Consultant, my job was to follow around an appraiser for a day and evaluate his personal performance as he valued properties in order to assign a credit line. It was the first time he had ever seen me, and that I’ve seen him, so it was not a personal thing. That day of the evaluation he worked from 8 am to 7 pm. At 7 pm I had to start writing down my own evaluation according to our tools in the consulting firm and ended up working until 3 am. Next day, a trustworthy “informer” told my Director that the appraiser had been bragging about how he had worked until late on purpose, that he had not used the car’s air conditioner since I was wearing a suit on a sunny day and that he parked once in front of a mud puddle to see if I stepped on it. Although I did feel it as a personal offense at first, professionally as a consultant you can’t lose objectivity and I took it as a challenge in earning the entire organizations trust even though most of them were resistant. Talk about being treated like a skunk! It was a succesfull project at the end.

Here are some tips that have helped me in gaining trust during projects, not only in innovation, but in those that require change management and team effort:
- Preach with the example: If you are creating new processes or politics, you need to follow them exactly as you want others to follow.
- Show your professionalism: always be on time, be organized, be prepared and anticipate problems. Skills are as important as knowledge.
- Show disposition to help others: people will help you as you show disposition to help them. It doesn’t mean actually diverging from the project but give a helping hand if you can. Also, it means you should spend as much time as a person needs in order to help them understand a new process or tool, even if you explain it 1,000 times.
- WORK!: If people you are instructing perceive that all you do is give orders they won’t respect you. This involves most of the times arriving earlier and leaving late. It also involves doing hard work alongside of operators or lower-rank employees. I remember wearing a suit but helping loading a bus with merchandise. Sweat it out and you will gain people’s trust.
- Always involve the middle-rank employees: Sometimes we plan actions with top management and implement them with low-level employees, forgetting to involve in both stages the middle-rank employees such as supervisors. These are the first employees that can boycott a project!
- Listen and take in mind opinions: You don’t know how many times employees have told me ‘we like your method because you hear everyone first and then take decisions.”
- Have strong arguments: Always keep track of information, data and analysis you’ve done to prove your points. When it’s your opinion against another’s, metrics will be a definite help and speak for themselves.
- Be humble: Forget the I’m-always-right or the I-told-you-so attitude. Never point out others mistakes in a personal way or they will be looking to do the same to you. Even if you are in a “special team”, don’t brag it out and try being part of the group and integrate others. Be diplomatic if needed, your job is to create synergy, and you are part of the group.
- Be enthusiastic about the project: remember those who are following your leadership are, at their best, one step behind of your own attitude. If you are enthusiastic, they will be positive. If you show doubt they will be pessimistic. If you are pessimistic they will probably drop out on you. This includes not complaining about work, sometimes working extra-hours and always being passionate about what you are doing.
- Show you can break your own paradigms: sometimes you will have to be flexible too and know you are not always right. If people see you can break your own “incumbent inertia”, they will also.
- Watch your personal image: You are in the center of critics, be careful on what you say, how you act, what you wear and even on what you do outside labor hours that can affect people’s trust or your professional image.

In simple words, people just treat skunks like skunks because they spread smelly pee all over. DON’T.


Skunk Cartoon from:

1 comment:

  1. reading and feeling like if we were in the tacos just sharing whats up with our lives..!! haha..!!
    Great stuff you have in here,!!!

    see you soon!