28 Jul Create small teams within large ones to accelerate product development
What is Skunk Works?
Throughout history there have been many pivotal moments where a small group of dedicated individuals have come together with a common purpose, to achieve the seemingly impossible.
One of those moments was in 1943, when Lockheed Aircraft Corporation was secretly hired by the US Army Airforce to build a high-speed jet fighter to counter the growing German threat. The jet needed to be ready in 150 days, fly at 600 miles per hour, 200 miles per hour faster than the current Lockheed P-38 propeller plane, and on a very tight budget. This was almost an impossible mission, but the Lockheed team stepped up to the challenge and had the plane ready in 143 days.
This event set a standard by making the impossible possible and went on to inspire businesses to create small, highly productive teams tasked with developing innovative products to take their businesses into the future. These projects are referred to as ‘Skunk Work’s and are led by a carefully selected team of people who are cohesive, focused, efficient and nimble in their approach to getting a new product to market.
Everett Rogers, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of New Mexico, who introduced the concept of “early adopter” defined skunkworks as an “enriched environment that is intended to help a small group of individuals design a new idea by escaping routine organisational procedures.”
When is product development hindered in large organisations? 5 common reasons
Each large business has an established culture and structure which supports the company’s successful growth and output. But at times, these structures can also inhibit successful product development for the following reasons:
1. Long chain of decision makers
Numerous phases of development require approval, which can slow down the creation of new and disruptive ideas that lead to innovation.
2. Employees feel restricted
Staff need to feel independent and comfortable to pursue their own innovative thinking and encouraged to put forward their ideas, which allows natural creative intelligence in the organisation to flow.
3. Large workload
Staff have a large workload which limits their ability to be creative.
4. Too many chiefs
Each manager trying to make their mark on the project slows development.
5. Restrictive processes and rules to protect the business
Large organisations have a playbook of processes and rules to enable efficient completion of tasks, minimise risk, and to ensure company standards are met. However these processes can become a barrier to innovation.
When large organisations carve out small teams that don’t have to play by these rules, they give themselves a much greater opportunity to be innovative and launch new products, be faster to market if necessary, and gain a significant competitive edge.
In our experience, here’s why smaller teams for product development work better
- Small teams stay focused with less competing priorities. They are given authority to make decisions, free from multiple layers of management
- Communication is more streamlined leading to confident decision making and quicker actions
- Individuals can be carefully selected to complement each other’s skill sets so there are no competing agendas to take away from the purpose of the project
- There is a cohesiveness that develops in small teams. A small team builds a unified and common purpose. Ideas – good and bad – can be voiced, allowing innovation to flourish and ideas to expand until meaning solutions have been identified
Mission Impossible: What can a skunk works style approach achieve in product development?
As a fully resourced product design team, we’ve had the opportunity to help larger companies innovate with ground-breaking products to strengthen brands and develop a competitive edge.
In the sport medicine sector, we were part of a small diverse team which included the CEO, software engineers, production designers and engineers. We developed a game changing, patented sport science device which is now sold widely throughout the world.
In construction, we’ve worked within a small team of commercial builders and manufacturers to design, engineer and complete production drawings for a bespoke, million-dollar, architectural ceiling feature in less the 30 days.
For clients who need speed to market, we’ve been part of a global team consisting of a brand manager in Europe, sourcing and QC agents in Hong Kong and a Chinese manufacturer in Shanghai, with our product development team here in Australia. The brief was to get to market within tight buying windows, fulfilling different promotional cycles such as Fathers day, Home and Garden Week, Christmas etc. As a group we were able to design, engineer, manufacture and deliver innovative products which gave the client a competitive edge, to market within 90 days.
Partner with an experienced and highly efficient product development team
Our product development team has been working together for many years, we’re cohesive, efficient, and productive. We bring our skills in innovation, focus and creativity to launching products that extend your brand and give you a competitive edge.
We’ll partner with you as a fully resourced product design team and help you carve out a skunk works style team which includes Whistle staff and your own team members. Together we’ll innovate past the point that you already know, expanding your business into a profitable future.