Skunkworks

I’ve recently been having first-hand experience in integrating what started out as a skunkworks – a separate, autonomous business unit put together for a specific project – back into an existing business. After getting over wondering why my pet project was suddenly having such a hard time – it felt like the skunkworks was under attack – I realised that there must have been 1000 other similar projects, in 1000 other companies which have had the same experience.

The scenario is something like this :

  • Existing business processes are perceived to be bureaucratic, slow, unwieldy and conservative
  • A senior manager successfully lobbies to establish a special project/innovation team/skunkworks
  • The skunkworks is formed, upsetting everyone in the existing business because it brings up a mix of emotions … disempowerment, lack of recognition of the successes that existing processes can produce, the feeling of being sidelined or left out, anger, and everything else on the spectrum

If the skunkworks is successful, the problem becomes assessing whether its success is because of its autonomy and different approach, or whether the skunkworks approach just happened to be suitable for the project in question.

Sometimes the skunkworks is successful, but under cultural pressure starts to meld into the original business, taking on the attributes and more conservative approach of the original.

In some instances, it may be desirable to merge the skunkworks back into the original company. If the skunkworks has been in existence for some time, this may prove difficult as the culture of the two business units will by now be quite different, especially apparent if the skunkworks has been setup to be physically remote from the original business.

Any way you cut it, the setup of a skunkworks in the first place needs a lot of drive, and huge persistence to make it successful. Disbanding or merging it back into the original business can require just as much effort.

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