In most organizations, the staff is so monopolized by day-to-day demands that innovation never seems the thing to do. Organizations should set aside a few leaders from responsibilities for normal operations and allow them to focus strategically and inject innovation through the use of "skunkworks" teams.
The lack of margin in day-to-day operations dominates thinking and limits creativity for innovation. It is important to create head-space within the organization to allow for the kind of perspective that produces innovative ideas.
Dedicated leaders: The key component is the decoupling of leaders from responsibility for directing day-to-day operations with the responsibility to maintain strategic focus and to look for opportunities for spawning innovation within the organization. The assertion is that in many organizations the limit on innovation has more to do with lack of margin for this type of thinking than it does organizational capacity to explore or execute on new ideas.
This role will be most attractive to a leader who measures success in terms of his or her impact on the organization and the compelling nature of the work rather than in terms of size of budget or staff. While being a catalyst for change can be frustrating, the potential upside is enormous. It might also be possible to consider rotating this position as a development opportunity among leaders in the organization, for example offering them a 6-month “innovation sabbatical”. This would give them the opportunity to gain strategic perspective though it would clearly have organizational ramifications that would have to be navigated.
Skunkworks teams: Because the leader is decoupled from the normal operational teams, implementation of their ideas will require help from cross-functional teams. Though it could be possible to create dedicated skunkworks teams tied to the innovation leader, this could have the effect of isolating the innovation from the operational departments such that they feel no ownership or desire to see the innovation succeed.
By gaining support for the exercise from the operational leaders and assembling a team of the right individuals from across the organization with a mandate to explore and possibly implement the innovative project you not only accomplish the goal of innovation but also encourage ownership of innovation throughout the organization. It is anticipated that involvement in the skunkworks teams will typically be a part-time assignment and that the operational leader will have to manage team members’ workloads accordingly.
Separate budget: Budgetary support for these initiatives could be managed several ways with one possible approach being allowing the operational departments to absorb the labor costs while associating hard costs through the innovation leader(s). Another approach would be to give the innovation leader a budget that they would use to “pay” the internal department for its team members’ time while also paying for any associated hard costs of skunkworks projects. This would be further incentive for operational teams to support the skunkworks projects because they would see direct financial compensation/increased budget in return for their support that could be used for additional headcount or toward other initiatives as needed.
Joint Ownership of Innovation: Because this model potentially separates innovation and execution there is a need for joint ownership of innovation goals and governance. This should involve including innovation goals and KPIs for both types of leaders and creating a structure to promote communication around innovative projects. The dedicated leader should not act as a “lone ranger” driving innovation by himself/herself but more as a catalyst exploring options, “teeing up” the best ideas and sharing the credit for successes with the operational leaders. The less the operational leaders feel like a skunkworks project is “costing” them (in terms of man hours or budget) the more likely they will be to support it, so one of the keys to achieving joint ownership will be the innovation leader’s ability to bring financial support (or other forms of support) to help operational leaders ensure their own projects, goals, and KPIs aren’t put at risk.
Measurement: With innovative projects it can be counter-productive to measure based on success or failure, creating a “playing it safe” environment. Instead, the desire is to create an environment of safety where everyone feels free to express ideas, even if they aren’t sure they will work. It will be important to measure the success of the venture in terms of the contribution of the individual team members, the possible solutions explored and especially the learning gained during the project. If the initiative succeeds it should be celebrated but an initiative that is explored and rejected should also be celebrated if the process was healthy and led to a correct conclusion.
Leadership should be measured based on their team’s contribution to these projects, the number of innovation projects explored and the quality of learning and results gained.
In our organization we created a new position (VP of Technology) that was tasked with the creation of the technology strategy and roadmap but not directly responsible for the IT department. In the process of assessing the current state and charting a course for fulfillment of the organizational strategy, opportunities for innovative application of technology became evident, many of which were tenable in the near term.
By assembling ad hoc skunkworks teams with needed resources to operationalize the new initiatives, feasibility can be established and the innovation explored.
In about 15 months since having created this position we have explored several dozen potential innovations, sparked many conversations about how technology changes should impact our thinking and brought at least one new product to market. This all happened during a time when the IT department was implementing 3 new major software platforms simultaneously – a herculean effort that left them with absolutely no margin or headspace.
It is very difficult for someone anchored in operational details to gain strategic perspective in a short time. It takes a minimum of 60-90 days to begin to get the kind of clarity required. So, it is important to free this leader from any responsibilities that would drag them back into the weeds for an extended period of time at the beginning of a skunkworks initiative. This initial period for research and reflection is very helpful and should be expected before real innovation opportunities begin to surface.
This is also the ideal time for the leadership team to set aside a budget for skunkworks initiatives. This puts the skunkworks leader in a strong position to begin talking with operational leaders about who might be good candidates to participate on a skunkworks project and what hard costs might be associated.
Once an innovative idea surfaces, the skunkworks leader should work with organizational leaders to identify members who can serve on the skunkworks team. The team should be given the charter to determine the best way to explore the idea and, if possible, to conduct a pilot or test to determine its viability and value. They should be assured that their performance will not be evaluated based on the success or failure of the idea but on the basis of the participation and contribution to the process. Finally, they should report back to leadership on their findings and results as well as the lessons learned in the process.
Hi Butch--welcome back, and nice work on this first draft of the hack. I really like the way you've set this up, in particular how you address the challenges section. It does seem like the major resistance to this sort of hack will be from those who are not included in the effort. As such, I agree with your conclusion that it will be important to involve the operational leaders in any efforts coming out of the skunkworks teams.
I'd love to see you take out some of the lessons you learned at FamilyLife and use them to build out the solution section even more. For example, you mention in the challenges section that you created a Technology Council and involved operational leaders in the process of exploring ideas. Could we make these formal parts of the hack? It seems like social acceptance of the skunkworks efforts will be one of the most critical elements. I'd love to hear more about this, especially when it comes to things like handing off new initiatives into the organization.
In my company, we have a maxim, "Those who are not invited on the journey usually reject the destination." How could you ensure that those who are going to be charged with implementing the new ideas don't reject them because they weren't part of their creation?
If we can begin to answer this question, I think we are going to have a really compelling hack on our hands! Nice work!!
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Thanks Chris. I've made a few changes based on your input. I think the essence of what you talk about is joint ownership where the dedicated leader serves as a catalyst. I've also added a bit more detail to a couple of other sections. I definitely welcome your thoughts on where it still needs to be clarified or strengthened.
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So, one of the challenges with this approach is integrating the skunkworks innovation teams with the normal operations: How to get resources allocated? How to make the handoff of successful initiatives into the mainstream? How to avoid getting caught up in the operations of these new initiatives so as to maintain strategic focus?
I welcome the thoughts of others on these questions. How could this work in your organization?
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Innovative idea generation I beleive doesn't happen in a vaccum when you are divided away as a separate role. I would be concerned about setting the expectation that we could obtain specific roles to do this while not making it part of habit of working. One can't often 'add' a headcount just for this. However, one way to possibly refine the idea while keeping with the intent might be to leverage some of what we see with the Googles and others companies that provide people wiht a specific amount of time to devote to innovation - 10% of a work week or month for example to spend on something you believe there is value in.
For example people could save the second half of every Friday (or pick a day that works) for innovation. If others prefer to group in larger increments a blast day each month set aside. Often I have seen groups that are excited form from these blast days form teams and continue working throughout the month to refine the idea into working pilots.
By providing sustainable support for the efforts through innovation frameworks and support processes an organization would be able to create a sustainable Skunk model. Creating a framework around how to vet an idea, how to promote something inside the skunk process, and when to bring it into the IT fold vs sustaining it in the skunk model. These are the challenges that I think could make a big difference.
VP Executive Partner, Gartner Inc.
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I believe it is right to say that if you are too isolated you will have a hard time coming up with innovative ideas that are tethered to reality. Good communication with the operational area is critical. Ideally the leader begins with existing knowledge of the area in question. However, in another respect it is exactly the isolation that makes it work because you have the perspective to not be trapped into only seeing the narrow view of what is possible.
Clearly the goal is to build innovation throughout the organization but the challenge is that it's a bit like boiling the ocean - it can be a difficult thing for which to gain critical momentum. My experience is that the kind of directives that you describe are often short-lived and soon swallowed up by the urgent. They are great approaches in organizations where they are part of the culture from the beginning but very difficult to cultivate later without some form of a lever to demonstrate the value.
This approach is discrete and has the effect of pulling people throughout the organization into innovative projects without requiring them to get the kind of distance from current reality it often takes to see truly out-of-the-box possibilities. In the process, it also demonstrates the benefits of innovation such that it invites others to prioritize time for innovation in their own roles.
I agree that we need to think about a good framework for running the skunkworks teams and how to integrate successful initiatives into normal operations. Very open to suggestions there as we are still navigating our way through that.
My thoughts based on how it has played out for us. Just one case, though. Love to hear other thoughts and perspectives.
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