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SKUNKWORKS

Innovation—tapping the fresh, value-creating ideas of employees, partners, customers, suppliers, and other parties beyond established boundaries—is incredibly difficult to foster.

Upon presenting a new and innovative idea, we have all experienced the response, “But it’s how we have always done it; why change things?” In most corporate cultures, people view any change as painful and problematic. Shifting paradigms to a culture that embraces innovation seems unattainable. How does a leader overcome the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality plaguing many corporate environments? After working through these issues with many organizations, I am certain that opportunities for innovation can be found anywhere or created by anyone.

Throughout my career, I’ve discovered some excellent ways to leverage the unexpected and unconventional forces of change. I once had the privilege of leading as the CFO of an environmental and engineering consulting firm. During my tenure there, one of my responsibilities was to constantly challenge the status quo and drive innovation. Most of the organization contained the people who held technical skills: engineers, environmental scientists, and architects. However, most did not hold the mindset of incorporating innovative behaviors into their daily routine. We had begun to slip in the market and, as an outsider looking in, you could see this was hindering the company’s growth and profitability. I knew I faced a challenge in developing fresh thinking in the field to produce the required results. I was going to need help to bring the needed change and energy to the culture.

One day it hit me: “Skunkworks!” The designation “skunkworks” is widely used in business settings to describe a specialized group within an organization who are given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy to produce uniquely innovative ideas and results. Skunkworks has a rich history: officially coined by Lockheed in the 1940s, it originally described an elite group of engineers working to designing top secret aircrafts for the war effort. Remarkably, the program performed so well in developing new aircraft and prototypes that it is still used today.

A skunkworks team was a perfect way to break our organization out of its lethargy. I hired six new college graduates with diverse academic backgrounds in areas such as marketing, English, and biology. The group did not have any knowledge of industry standards or structure. To ensure they did not break any federal or state laws, I hired a civil engineer to manage them; however, his role was strictly to keep them out of trouble, not to impede their work.

The challenge presented to the young recruits was to build a faster process, without sacrificing quality, for the company to turn out their assessments and testing done on job sites. Their only rule: they were not to base new ideas on any current procedures. When I first introduced the team to the company, they were dismissed. No one paid attention to them or thought they could enhance the company.  I’m sure many thought, “What can these young professionals do differently than the firm’s highly skilled and experienced practitioners?” Six months into the project, certain departments started to take interest. They saw the potential in the ideas coming from the group and began supporting their implementation. The “Skunks”, as the group dubbed themselves, brought marked improvement to the firm but, more importantly, they displayed energy that had long been absent.

This unlikely team became a resource for the technical teams, helping them think outside the box.  Over time, the Skunks led a shift in the firm’s mentality from complacency with tradition and the status quo to progressive and forward thinking.

The point of my story is not to inspire you to go out and build your own think-tank, but to be innovative with your current resources. Who would have thought that a group of new graduates, people to whom the company and industry were completely foreign, could produce such beneficial ideas and improvement? What unlikely resources can you leverage in the workplace to drive innovation? I would love to hear about them.


MEET GIB MASON.

As executive director of the Center for Leadership and Innovation, Gib works directly with senior executives in a variety of industries, from construction to wealth management. He brings over three decades of experience in organizational stewardship and cultural development and has an extensive history of helping companies drive rapid growth and instill winning cultures. Gib will be a regular contributor in our new blog series on IT Modernization.

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