The joy of Skunkworks
“It is often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” – Grace Murray Hopper
When Owen Barder spoke to us earlier this year he was asked about how to create change in large aid organizations. His response was that often change needs to come in through setting up “skunkworks”, unofficial or even clandestine projects to try out new approaches which if successful can help provoke change in the larger organization. These are kind of the “black ops” of development work.
So what is skunkworks?
According to wikipedia (at least when I last looked;-)
The designation “skunk works”, or “skunkworks”, is widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects.
The term comes from a secret team set up during the Second World War by Lockheed Martin to develop a new fighter plane. They realized that doing this following the usual bureaucratic processes of the Air Force and the Company would take too long, and so they set up an elite team who worked on the project in secret and outside the usual working methods.
This approach has since been adopted by many large organizations who wanted to develop new products or approaches without being bogged down by the inevitable inertia and red-tape that afflict most large organizations, even highly successful ones. And given the frequent lamenting about the need for change in the aid world (my my frequent lamenting about the need for organizations to be better at sharing knowledge more effectively), this might be a means to foster change.
So how can we apply this approach in aid work?
In some cases “Skunkworks” can be set up as an official team or project with full management support – if you are luck enough to be able to convince your senior managers that you have an idea and would like to try it out, and be given a space to do so. Examples of this in the UN system include the UNICEF innovation team and UN Global Pulse, both of whom have a mandate to innovate and pilot new approaches. They are not referred to as Skunkworks and are not clandestine, but are doing work that is not typical of the UN and are managed and run more like start-ups than regular functional units. One discussion point from the recent Open UN event during social media week is that the UN needs more of these, and I don’t think it is a stretch to say that this approach would be useful in other aid organizations too.
But it’s not always possible to get a resourced project with top management support and a mandate for change (especially for knowledge management work!). So another approach is to set up your own unofficial “skunkworks”. In this case you might not have a budget or a mandate – but if you really believe in change it might be the only way to go.
Here the basic principle is that to introduce a change, an innovation or a new approach is not to try to persuade the organization to adopt it organization wide, or to ask permission and get inputs from everyone who might have an interest or a comment on the approach – this will invariably get you stuck because it will lead everyone else to express their doubts, identify risks, add layers of complication, ask for additional research and drafts, or need an evidence based business case that proves it will work – all of which could be a problem if you are doing something new and untested.
Instead a skunkworks approach would be to:
i) come up with the basic idea
ii) get support (or at least cover) from your immediate bosses to try out the idea on a limited scale
iii) identify a few allies who are interested, or better enthusiastic about trying out the idea in practice and who you can work with well in order to do it.
iv) consult with those people who can bring specific expertise you need, whose advice you trust and who won’t try to stop you from doing what you want to do unless they feel you really are on the wrong track. Include insiders and outsiders in this group – each has different insights to bring – both technical and political.
v) try out the idea, and be flexible about how it works, continually taking feedback and adjusting the approach based on experience and importantly the feedback of the people you are trying to help.
vi) after a sensible amount of time take stock of the experience and – if it really isn’t working STOP doing it, document and share what you learned and move on
vii) if it works get the people who you helped to say how great it is (rather than you – their views are much more credible than yours) – then make a pitch to scale it up and get proper institutional support. BUT – a judgement call here – one pilot might not be enough, maybe you will need more before you are ready to go big.
A key here is to demonstrate that change is possible and that it contributes value in reality, before someone has time to object to it “in theory”. Then if what you are doing is good it will create a momentum for it to continue, even if it needs to be modified to take into account other people’s opinions and the corporate culture.
What do you think – have people tried this successfully, any tips to add? Does anyone have any objection to this approach (preferably in practice rather than in theory 😉 ?
(This blog post draws both on my own experience, that of my colleagues and lots of invaluable conversations with others trying to foster change in large organizations. I’d also recommend those specifically interested in Knowledge Management to read this excellent post on “Guerrilla Knowledge Management” by Christian Young which advocates for taking a “revolutionary’s” approach to fostering knowledge management and provides lots of tips on how to do so)