Saturday, 29 January 2011

The Failure of the Skunkworks

Something I have seen as a quite common approach in an organisation is to start a skunkworks project, to get something critical off the ground. I have been involved in several in the course my career, with varying success.

Typically these initiatives are actually done for the wrong reasons, but that’s not what I am going to talk about here.

What I have noticed is that more often than not, a skunkworks project is started; a small, skilled and motivated team is split off, it is isolated and allowed to focus on a specific issue. Now this (sometimes) results in fantastic results, the team is hugely productive and makes brilliant in-roads into the issue. Their progress reports are astounding and it promises great things.

Then they reach that critical juncture and the team is brought back into the fold. Unfortunately then more often than not things start to unravel.  The business views the final outcome as if not a failure, then a partial one.

Looking at what has happened we can find a lot of potential ‘reasons’ for this:
  • The skunkworks team just failed, they misreported their progress, they built false hope.
  • The process of creating a skunkworks team created too much animosity, those left behind were resentful and they then either consciously or unconsciously sabotaged the final integration of the solution.
  • The team produced something which whilst it solved the problem, couldn’t realistically be integrated into the ‘real’ system, it was either too advanced or couldn’t be understood by the mere mortals expected to continue or support the work.

Regardless of these and many other possible reasons I actually think there is something very different at work here – I think the perceptions of the above don’t take into account something  fundamental.

When you split off your skunk-works team, you removed them from your ‘System’. You gave them freedom, they probably self-organised, they were smart and motivated.  In their work they created their own little system in a bubble, one that suited their needs and as a result their productivity exploded. They probably even ignored the remnants of the system they were supposed to use (timesheets... nah can’t be bothered waste of time ...) and got away with it, because they were the skunkworks team, they were special.

Then you dragged them out of that bubble.

Pulled back into the ‘System’, and you crushed them, that bubble dissolved, productivity plummeted and problems rocketed – you re-imposed those constraints which held them back in the first place.

Chances are some of that team you pampered by allowing that microcosm walked out the door, they saw what was possible and had it cruelly ripped out from under them. The ‘System’ defeated them.

You see the huge gains in productivity were not down to isolating them, giving them their own coffee machine or supplying them with pizza late into the evenings. Sure they loved that stuff, but what they really loved was the freedom – the new system they created specifically to meet their goals.

By System, I don't mean process (Waterfall, SCRUM, etc) , I don't mean the Feng Shui of the office, I don't mean free pizza - the system encompasses all of those things and much more.  In turn the system produces a culture, and that culture plays a part in driving the behaviour of the people who work there.

Its an extremely complex system with positive and negative feedback loops and a million variables.  More people, more variables, more loops.

I don’t have a magical solution if you are considering or have an existing a skunkworks project, every situation is different.  But I do suggest you step back, and really think about why there needs to be a one.  I am betting that stepping back, thinking about the way you work, the system and its culture, that it will help you find alternative paths to solve your problems.

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