Recommended: Skunk Works

Skunk Works

Skunk Works

In 1975, thermodynamicist and propulsion expert Ben R. Rich took over the role of CEO at Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works division, inheriting an unconventional organization-within-an-organization that had become, at the height of the cold war, the envy of defense contractors and private enterprise alike. As chronicled in Rich’s account of the years before and after his promotion to the most coveted role in American aerospace, the Skunk Works became renown for designing cutting edge aircraft under extraordinary pressure and impossible timelines, often coming in under budget.

Although many organizations today claim to embody the agile development methodology pioneered by Ben Rich and his predecessor, Chief Engineer Kelly Johnson, few manage to live up to the principles of the Skunk Works:

  • Set “extremely difficult but specific objectives (e.g. a spy plane flying at 85,000 feet with a range of 6,000 miles)”;
  • Tolerate minimal interference from clients and executive management, which is best achieved through secrecy and security;
  • Put designers on the production floor;
  • Prototype;
  • Remember that “it’s more important to listen than to talk”;
  • Disseminate responsibility for quality control: if you handle it, you’re empowered to send something back that doesn’t meet your standards of quality;
  • Reuse designs wherever possible, and employ “no-handed” (i.e. adaptable for multiple users) off-the-shelf solutions;
  • Hire talented generalists who are “more open to nonconventional approaches than narrow specialists,” train them and pay them well;
  • Allow yourself to be “less profitable than other divisions in a corporation only if [your] projects are not financial back-breakers and are limited to producing about fifty units or so”;
  • Build lasting relationships with proven suppliers, instead of constantly renegotiating for the lowest bid;
  • Issue regular progress reports, and faithfully actualize against budget;
  • If you deliver under budget, return the surplus.


One Comment to “Recommended: Skunk Works”

  1. One part results, one part romantic mythology?
    I’ve loved the idea of Skunk Works since I first heard about it. Working with a startup now, I hope to replicate a lot of this. It may not be elegant in a corporate-starched-shirt kind of way, but i hope it gets us to the stratosphere faster than the next guy.