When Germany’s first jet fighter planes appeared in the skies over Europe in 1943, the U.S. War Department hired Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to build a working jet fighter prototype, giving it just 180 days to do so. For the War Department, there was just one man for the job: 33-year old Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, Lockheed’s talented but eccentric chief engineer. Kelly Johnson ran Lockheed’s innovative Advanced Develop Programs for nearly 45 years, from its inception in 1943 to 1975.
Challenging constraints shaped the project: build a jet fighter prototype that would fly at 600 miles per hour—the edge of the speed of sound and 200 miles per hour faster than the current Lockheed P-38 propeller plane—in 180 days.
The only problem was this: Lockheed was out of floorspace, as the entire complex was devoted for 24/7 production of the current planes.
The jet fighter project was to be conducted with top secrecy, so Kelly decided to leverage the space constraint. He broke away from the Lockheed main operation, taking 23 of the best design engineers and 30 mechanics with him, and set up camp in a rented circus tent next to a foul-smelling plastics factory, figuring the odor would help keep nosy parkers away.
The whole setup reminded people of Al Capp’s L’il Abner comic strip, and the "Skonk Works," a dilapidated factory on the remote outskirts of Capp’s fictional backwoods town, Dogpatch run by one Big Barnsmell, the lonely "inside man" no one would ever want to be at the Skonk Works.
In Capp’s comics, scores of Dogpatch locals were done in every year by the toxic fumes of concentrated "skonk oil," which Big and his cousin Barney brewed and barreled daily by grinding dead skunks and worn shoes into a constantly smoldering still, for a purpose that Capp never disclosed.
One day a designer picked up a ringing phone and answered it with "Skonk Works." The name stuck and it wasn’t long before even those working at the main Lockheed plant were calling it that too. Perhaps it was the stink that drove Kelly’s secret team to design and build the prototype for the P-80 Shooting Star—nicknamed Lulu Belle—in a mere 143 days. That's 37 days ahead of schedule.
Lockheed management agreed to let Kelly keep his elite design and development team running, as long as it did not interfere in any way with Kelly’s primary duties as Lockheed’s Chief Engineer, and was kept on a shoestring budget. Kelly hand-selected a few of the brightest designers and moved into a building known only as Building 82.
Over the next 15 years, Skonk Works became part of the Lockheed lexicon. In 1960, when Al Capp's publisher objected to Lockheed’s use of Skonk Works, rather than abandon the name, Lockheed changed it to Skunk Works and registered both the name and the cartoon Skunk logo as trademarks, thus becoming the official alias of the Lockheed Advanced Development Programs.
Thus was born the de facto standard for running top secret projects among the world’s most innovative companies, and the model Steve Jobs used in launching the Macintosh division of Apple.
In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson tells how Jobs cherry-picked a team of about 20 "pirates," as he referred to them, and seceded from the Apple main campus. He relocated the team to a small building three blocks away, next to a Texaco station. The two-story brown-shingled building became known as Texaco Towers.
Jobs kept the renegade spirit alive with his maxim "it’s better to be a pirate than join the navy." Jobs actively recruited rebels and swashbucklers—talented but audacious individuals who could move fast and get things done.
Over the years, the term Skunk Works has come to refer to any effort involving an elite special team that breaks away from the larger organization to work autonomously on an advanced or secret project, usually tasked with breakthrough innovation on limited budgets and under aggressive timelines.
The term has become official, and is defined in the 4th edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language as "an often secret experimental laboratory or facility for producing innovative products."
Kelly Johnson had three simple management principles supporting a single fundamental belief: don’t build something you don’t believe in. His three principles: First, it’s more important to listen than to talk; second, even a timely wrong decision is better than no decision; and third, don’t halfheartedly wound problems—kill them dead.
Over time, Kelly developed 14 rules for all Skunk Works projects as a way to put his core belief and basic principles into practice. Half of the rules (with a few word changes) can be applied to any skunk works project, and they prescribe a robust framework within which to operate:
- The Skunk Works manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects. He should report to a division president or higher.
- Strong but small project offices must be provided.*
- The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems).
- A very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes must be provided.
- There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.
- The contractor must be delegated the authority to test his final product in flight. He can and must test it in the initial stages. If he doesn’t, he rapidly loses his competence to design other vehicles.
- Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled by appropriate security measures.
* (Note: The full rule read "both by the military and industry." The remaining seven rules are all specifically focused on Lockheed work and military defense contract work. You can see all fourteen here.)
If you're contemplating your own skunk works project, take a page from Kelly Johnson and Lockheed's Skunk Works: set a stretch goal, frame it with intelligent constraints, select a special team, secede from the main operation, and set to work.
Matthew E. May is author of The Laws Of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything (McGraw-Hill, October 26, 2012). You can follow him @MatthewEMay.
[Image: Skunk via Shutterstock]