Put the Skunk to Work

ut the Skunk to Work - People Development Network
ut the Skunk to Work - People Development Network

Have you ever had something not turned out the way you expected or planned? Maybe some new clothes do not look right on you. Or the new food plan you’re trying doesn’t result in the loss of weight or increase in energy you desire. Or you start to realize that your friends don’t share the same values or worldview anymore.

When we discover things like this, we tend to make small tweaks first. We try a different store or brand name of clothes. We switch to a new diet plan. We begin to reduce time with certain friends and increase time with others.  Sometimes these changes work right away. More often, our lives require a series of tweaks – ‘continuous improvement in action’ – to see sustainable results.

In business, continuous improvement is a common practice. It may have different names, like process improvement or business process optimization, but the goal is to streamline and improve workflows, schedules, and procedures continually, so better outcomes result. Managers evaluate steps to a task and refine them. Leaders rotate team members. The marketing department tries a new approach.

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

There are times though that continuous improvement still doesn’t produce the significant results your business requires. That’s when you may need a “skunk works.”

What exactly is a “skunk works?” It’s a team of talented, engaged people who work outside the standard routines to solve challenging problems with minimal supervision or constraints. The term first came from Lockheed Martin. In 1943, under the leadership of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, a skunkworks team was formed to design and build America’s first fighter jet. Johnson promised that if the team could be released fro the boundaries of the larger organization, they would deliver a working prototype in 150 days.  The tight deadline and secret mission motivated the team to produce the P-80 Shooting Star fighter in 143 days.  It didn’t end there.

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

You may be hesitant to give a small team this type of unfettered responsibility for a product or service. So try it with something smaller–a values skunk works.

Ask one of your best leaders, one who already inspires strong performance and citizenship, to take on the mission of defining and aligning behaviors with 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 jobs, alongside continuous performance practices, using these established values and behavior. Let them discern how to keep one another accountable for performance and respectful treatment of each other.

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

And, you guessed it. What the skunk works team models about living their values will inspire other teams in your company to create their own organizational constitution – probably liberally borrowing from the first team’s well-crafted version.

S Chris Edmonds
S. Chris Edmonds is a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He shares insights on organizational culture, servant leadership, employee engagement, and workplace inspiration. He writes books and articles and records podcasts. In his free time, he's a working musician with the Brian Raine band in Denver, CO.
S Chris Edmonds


I help leaders craft purposeful, positive, productive work cultures. Speaker, author, & executive consultant. Blogger & video-caster. @BrianRaineBand mate.
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S Chris Edmonds