KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

The joy of Skunkworks

with 14 comments

“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)


Written by Ian Thorpe

March 15, 2011 at 6:05 pm

14 Responses

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  1. The initial quotation by Grace Murray Hopper was widely commented in a Rural Development Programme I used to work many years ago. In this case, the local coordinators of the programme implemented several innovations (trainings, new credit schemes, alternative ways of supporting small farmers, etc.) and just briefly informing their bosses at the beginning, and fully reporting the experiences once the different innovations were implemented (and generally in a successful way). Good post!!

    Pablo Rodriguez-Bilella

    March 15, 2011 at 6:24 pm

  2. I’m ambivalent.

    I find it likely that a substantial amount of ‘big leaps forward’ have happened in this way.

    I also find it likely that many more instances of immoral outcomes and disasters, frankly, have happened as the consequence of groups thinking they really had something going for them, which unfortunately ‘everyone else’ wouldn’t understand. Analogies from warfare related ‘activities’, other than that fighter plane, come to mind.

    So, I have to go for transparent experimentation. Which will usually have to happen outside the big organisations to begin with … judging by the experience in the aid ‘sector’.

    /Sorry to be party pooping

    Sceptical Secondo

    March 16, 2011 at 12:42 am

    • @scepticalsecondo I think you are right that both good and bad ideas have come out of skunkworks type operations, so a couple of caveats are needed. I’d say that any project – while not “official” still needs to be pursued ethically and with a clear potential benefit to the organization’s mission. Also bad ideas should be killed when they don’t work, or even when they sre successful but the organization decides at this point that despite the success, it isn’t the right strategic thing for the organization to be doing.

      On transparent innovation (and I’m a big fan of transparency) ideally an organization will embrace this and encourage its staff to experiment – but it’s often not the case in practice – so if you want change you will need to go the skunkworks route. However once a pilot is complete the assessment of it (and accounting for the money spent) should be transparent. Even in private sector innovation there is a trade-off between inviting others in to get their inputs, but not being too inclusive so as not to risk the idea being “stolen” or watered down or blocked.

      I’d also agree that most innovation in aid probably happens outside the large organizations. But I certainly wouldn’t agree that large organizations should eschew innovation and change and leave it entirely to others.

      Ian Thorpe

      March 16, 2011 at 1:36 am

  3. I first heard of this “skunkworks” idea last year when our new (I suppose she’s not so new, now, but still fresh!) head of Human Resources came and talked to our regional group of Representatives. It seemed attractive then, just as it does now. Is it just that I am tired of all the rules? Maybe. But there is something very enticing about being put on your mettle to innovate and honestly assess that innovation but hopefully blaze something of a new trail.
    I would agree with @scepticalsecondo that if it is too underground then it will generate an ‘us and them’ feeling which could go awry. I remember the horrible atmonsphere of “us and them” when some were over-enthusiastically embracing the rights perspective after the CRC was adopted. So I think it’s true it shouldn’t be completely underground, but I also think (or just hope?) it’s true that we don’t have to leave completely this organization we love in order to be innovative and daring!

    Mark Hereward

    March 16, 2011 at 2:03 am

    • @mark – I think you have a good point about the us/them thing. In a way this is why it might be better for the skunkworks not to be officially endorsed because being left out of exciting developments by management when you want to contribute can also be very demotivating. But for the unofficial skunkworks I think a good strategy is to bring in the enthusiasts who want to be part of it – creating a buzz could be part of the approach- but you also need to keep off the radar of the blockers!

      Ian Thorpe

      March 16, 2011 at 2:10 am

  4. Yes. Been there done this. Swear by it. When are we having a pint or three Ian…?

    Two additional points toward the end:

    (viii) Once you know it really works, make sure someone in very senior management knows that it was actually a nugget of strategic leadership or wisdom they said to you a year ago that inspired you to do this. Let them take credit. Encourage them over time to think it was basically their idea. Lie if necessary.

    (ix) Check your ego at the door when you org really starts to go gangbusters with mainstream adoption. In some skunky projects, apart from your trusted collaborators, many people benefiting from the fruits of your work might have no idea you were involved. But did you do this for slaps on the back and a pat on the head, or because you knew it had to be done?


    March 16, 2011 at 2:45 am

  5. doesnt most field work require some degree of skunk work? I mean, there are policies, but when you are on the ground you are always looking at ways of adapting the policy to your reality. I think to a great degree the problem is harnessing that information (KM) and the fear that if someone finds out you are going to get in trouble (or what could be even worse in this world, god forbid you rock the boat!) so kudos to @Cynan’s point viii (that is SO the way forward).


    March 17, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    • @cynan – great additions. viii) especially important ix) good advice if you want the idea to take off – but a lot of human motivation comes from recognition – and I’m going to admit I would like a bit of recognition for any good ideas I contributed to 😉 So this might be a bit of a balance in reality – but of course it can’t be all about me (especially not in KM).

      @angelica – funny someone said almost exactly the same thing on my internally posted version of this. A lot of the best skunk in development comes from field offices where the demands are more immediate and censuring eyes are further away. But I think we really need more of this in HQ as well.

      Ian Thorpe

      March 17, 2011 at 1:43 pm

  6. […] 2011 by Mark Hereward My colleague Ian posted an excellent blog on “skunkworks” (a small group of people doing things in a very different way from […]

  7. I like the unofficial approach…
    I’ve developped a Rapid Innovation model which integrates somme principles of the skunk works and development stages that you suggest in your unofficila approach: pls have a look at

    Nicolas Bry

    March 18, 2011 at 7:12 pm

  8. […] from linear model to interactive model, innovation from everyone everywhere vs ambidextrous organization vs dedicated entity (a dedicated team, not an isolated team; skunk works, official and unofficial); […]

  9. […] in the evening. This is where you’ll go all pro-active. This is stuff you’ll set up a skunkworks to get done, if it takes that. This is the stuff you’ll get cross about and pick fights with […]

  10. […] have to be crowbarred into the organisation. Ian wrote a very right-on post a while back about skunkworks. And I’m pushing this laundry hamper in through a maintenance tunnel out in the Horn because it […]

    la vidaid loca

    February 26, 2012 at 3:38 am

  11. […] from linear model to interactive model, innovation from everyone everywhere vs ambidextrous organization vs dedicated entity (a dedicated team, not an isolated team; skunk works, official and unofficial); […]

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