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Entries in Skunk Works (1)

Monday
Oct242011

The Value of Skunk Works (Innovation in IT)

It seems every IT organization is too busy, too lean, and/or too rushed to do much innovation.  And it’s an unacceptable excuse.Photo from Vintage-Computer.com

Every IT organization must innovate, or perish.

Skunk works efforts are those taking place within an organization a high degree of independence and unaided by bureaucracy, working on advanced or secret projects.

Take the IBM PC.  The IBM PC was developed as a skunk works effort in IBM’s Boca Raton facility in under a year.  The innovation was using off the shelf components….and a licensed operating system from a company known as Microsoft.  

Office Depot developed a retail and contract commercial online ordering network (RACCOON) system as a skunk works effort.  Small team, seaPhoto from wobbulate.comted separately from the rest of development, and focused on the deliverable.  

Staples.com was “envisioned” by three guys…Robert Dring, Ken Chaisson, and myself.  While none of us are there anymore, we were very proud of our skunk works effort, no more than a simple store locator.  At the time, the Chairman, Tom Stemberg, said, “Only Geeks and Wonks will use the Internet.”  His view wasn’t unique.  Since then, he’s changed his view to, “What I most proud about… Staples and e-commerce… Addition to the fact, that Staples are now the second largest e-tailer in the world.”

IT Operations organizations often benefit greatly from small skunk works efforts.  Since IT Operations are supposed to be very regimented and predictable (like a nuclear sub), it’s important development activities occur “outside” the operating norm.

I’ve seen successful skunk works efforts in report distribution, batch scheduling, networking, event monitoring/alerting, wireless, and video.

All it takes is some funding, a motivated person or team, and a dream.   Personally, I like people with vision and drive, and (personal preference) loose cannons need not apply.

I contend any organization (and I do mean any) can spin up skunk works initiatives, especially if “college students” or interns are used.  Some of the best efforts come from college students/interns because they don’t know what can’t be done!  Of course, it’s also a good way for an in-house sabbatical for top performers.

The length of the skunk works effort varies.   90 days is about right for progress….with progress another 90 days can be added. 

Once something is tangible, it can then be used for formal funding and productionalization.

Avoid the temptation to use a skunk works effort immediately without making it bullet proof, or your dream can become a nightmare.