November 28th, 2011

Reincarnating “Skunk Works” approach in Cleantech

Business Insights -

1943, is the year in which the antecedents of Lockheed Martin’s “Skunkworks” can be found. Since those early days the famous division has produced famous planes such as the U2 and the Blackbird. These tremendously innovative projects were all founded upon the idea of small, unconventional teams of engineers and innovators operating in a large corporation.


The ground breaking innovators in the “Skunkworks” were shielded as if working in start-up firm, isolating them from bureaucratic interference. Considering their main customer was the government, this was a huge and extremely effective achievement.

Tim Hartford in his excellent new book “Adapt” suggests that the ‘glass-housing’ of these radical projects won’t guarantee results every time. Furthermore the majority of output innovations will actually be wholly unusable in the world. However the odd one that does prove viable will more than make up for the combined failures and can provide unimaginable and incalculable benefits.

The “Skunkworks” first team leader was Kelly Johnson, and all projects were conducted in alignment with Kelly’s 14 rules and practices. These principles were specifically developed for delivering rapid, radical and successful innovation in public private partnerships.

Whilst attending the UK Technology Strategy Board’s Innovate ’11 conference, I found one seminar of particular interest. It was based upon the findings of an intriguing new project which set out to re-invent the “Skunkworks” rules for delivering future cleantech innovation. The project utilized Johnson’s rules as a starting point to run a series of workshops with the remit of establishing ‘14’ universal truths in the delivery of successful schemes between government and private sector from cleantech projects.

The founder of WPL, Theo Bird led a panel with representation from Finmeccanica, Mott McDonald, Gordon Murray Design and Grimshaw Architects. The panel disseminated the project’s aims to investigate the current challenges, barriers and problems of developing low carbon technologies. Whilst concurrently developing a set of project principles which public and private partnerships should aim to aspire to improve development and support innovation. The session offered great insight into government/ industry collaboration and the necessary collaboration and sharing which are crucial to meeting the world’s energy challenge.

The 14 principles were as follows:

  1. The business case must be compelling, sustainable and revisited frequently.
  2. Legislation changes – use government environmental policies but don’t bank on them.
  3. Sustainability must permeate.
  4. Define your stakeholders and align their interests.
  5. Contracts are living things not things you live with.
  6. Innocence and experience must sing in harmony. (Focusing knowledge and younger enthusiasm – allow space for young to innovate but support with experience).
  7. The best communication is personal, allowing real trust to be built.
  8. Theory is transformed when grounded by practice.
  9. New technology and markets rejuvenate abandoned ideas.
  10. Don’t make tomorrow an effigy of yesterday – constantly challenge and rethink old ideas.
  11. The most reliable component is the one that’s not there. Continually pursue simplicity.
  12. Human nature doesn’t like what it does not know, convey across qualitative ideas.
  13. Good public relations.
  14. Perfection is a trade of imperfections. Change from to designing for certainty and perfection to concentrate on what matters.

Over sixty seven years have passed since the founding of the “skunkworks” and now a new set of principles for a greener economy have been suggested. It has been rumoured that there was a 15th unwritten rule at Lockheed, never to work with a certain famous large US airline manufacturer! During the seminar a challenge was thrown to the floor to suggest a 15th principle. So to reiterate this challenge, do you agree with the 14 points, can you suggest a 15th?

Can these principles be applied to your business small or large? Does your organisation allow for seemingly crazy projects that do not agree with top management’s plans? I fervently believe that the low risk policy for investment in ‘greening’ projects is just not meeting the grade for the drastic changes that are needed if we are going to get to a sustainable destination. This path is going to mean many failures but maybe these ‘new’ principles can improve the chances for the seriously radical and potentially disruptive success stories that we are yet to widely see in the cleantech space.

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About James Byrne

James, 24 from Cheshire in the UK, completed an MSc in International Technology Management at The University of Warwick in October 2011. During the last year undertook research into creativity in the Front End of Innovation for disruptive cleantech. James is currently working on several projects which include driving GLD forward in the UK. Further since graduating he has lectured on disruptive business model innovation at UoW. Moreover he is looking for opportunities in a technology and innovation management related role. James is contactable at