Saturday, August 1, 2009

Better Ways to Work #1: The Skunk Works

In the run up to World War II, Lockheed engineer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson and his colleagues needed a way to work faster and smarter than was possible within Lockheed proper. Their solution was to set up an elite, secretive team in a walled-off section of Lockheed's Burbank plant. Often based on nothing more than a handshake, Johnson's team went to work developing some of the most important breakthroughs in military aviation history. One early project was 1944's P-80 Shooting Star, the first U.S. Air Force jet fighter. According to legend (and Wikipedia), they named the unit the Skunk Works — after the "Skonk Works" in the "Li'l Abner" comic strip — because it was located near a foul-smelling plastics factory. Lockheed's Skunk Works logo appears at the left.

I first heard about Kelly Johnson and the Skunk Works from my husband, a veteran and devoted militaria buff. (He would make a great technical adviser if Hollywood decides to make any more movies about WW II or Vietnam.) Some years later I realized I was working in a Skunk Works. My department, which was responsible for the company's business development efforts, had to work faster and smarter than was possible through normal agency channels. Gradually and organically, we grew into a creative, self-sufficient team that just happened to work behind closed doors in a remote corner of the building. Was it expensive? Yes. But the amount of new business we helped generate was many times greater than our overhead.

Now I'm wondering whether a Skunk Works environment can be created virtually, perhaps through crowdsourcing. Something to investigate.

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