The skunk works logo is featured on Lockheed's Advanced Development Program hanger in Palmdale, CA.
The skunk works logo is featured on Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects hanger in Palmdale, CA.
Sometimes things just don’t work like we expect them to.

Clothes don’t look right on us. Our diet doesn’t support sustained energy and health. Some of our friends turn out to be less values-aligned than we thought.

So, we change things up. We try new clothes. We try a new diet. We insulate from old friends that no longer fit our worldview.

These little tweaks sometimes work better immediately. In most cases, it requires a series of tweaks to find a better fit or better outcomes or better energy.

This approach is continuous improvement in action – small tweaks made to benefit our lives.

In business, leaders try continuous improvement all the time – even if they don’t call it that. If there are quality issues with products or services, leaders inspire process refinements to improve quality. If team members aren’t as productive as they need to be, training is offered. Sometimes team members are rotated to find a more effective mix for productivity.

If products aren’t as popular as they used to be, leaders inspire product tweaks to see if a new feature or application can rejuvenate sales. A new pattern on dinnerware can boost sales. A new sandwich combination can bring customers back.

Continuous improvement is normal and natural, in life as in business.

However, sometimes continuous improvement doesn’t lead to the significant shifts that your team – your business – requires. To make significant shifts might require a skunk works.

A skunk works is a small team of talented, engaged people that work outside the normal business routines and processes to solve difficult problems with minimal supervision or constraints.

The skunk works terminology comes from Lockheed Martin. In 1943, under the leadership of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, a skunk works team was formed to design and build America’s first fighter jet. Johnson promised delivery of a working prototype in 150 days – so long as they worked separate from the boundaries of the larger Lockheed organization. The secret mission and the incredibly tight deadline inspired the team. They delivered the P-80 Shooting Star fighter in 143 days.

Lockheed’s skunk works is responsible for a number of significant aviation accomplishments, including the U-2, the SR-71 Blackbird, and the invisible-to-radar F-117 Nighthawk.

If small tweaks aren’t leading to significant benefits in your business, you might need a skunk works.

You may be hesitant to give a small team the immediate responsibility for future products or services. So, start small – with a values skunk works.

Ask one of your best bosses – someone who inspires strong performance as well as strong engagement across their team today – to take on the mission of defining and aligning team behaviors to an organizational constitution. Let your skunk works craft their team’s present day purpose, values and behaviors, strategies and goals.

Then let them do their work – with continuous performance improvements – while living their team’s values and behaviors. Let them learn how to hold each other accountable for not only performance but for respectful treatment of their team members in every interaction.

If they’re like most of the team’s I work with, they’ll reap the benefits of boosted results, engagement, and service. They’ll be inspired by a work environment that treats everyone with trust, respect, and dignity.

And what that skunk works team learns about living their values can help other teams throughout your business experience the same inspiration.

Have you ever been a part of a skunk works team? If so, what was your experience? How might your business benefit from a values skunk works team? Share your insights on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Photo © Malfita – Wikimedia Commons. All rights reserved.

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S. Chris Edmonds

S. Chris Edmonds

Chris helps leaders create purposeful, positive, productive work cultures. He's a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He blogs, podcasts, and video casts. He is the author of The Culture Engine and six other books.
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