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“What the Skunk Works does is secret. How it does it is not.”

I’ve just read the latest FreakTakes (from the excellent Eric Gilliam) on Managing Lockheed’s Skunk Works. Highly recommended – here’s a snippet:

Skunk Works’ success on the U-2 was not an isolated event. The Skunk Works would also go on to produce two more planes considered all-time greats — the Blackbird models and the F-117 stealth bomber — in addition to dozens of other successful planes. This, of course, raises the question: how did Skunk Works staff build so many novel planes on such a routine basis? Did they have a kind of special sauce?

Kelly Johnson believed they did. Kelly famously had a list of 14 rules he used to run the Skunk Works. However, upon reading his biography, it becomes clear that the beliefs and experiences that led to those rules could be distilled down to something like three key principles. The three principles are, roughly:.

  1. Reduce the bureaucracy to almost zero. Ideally, one person should have almost complete authority over day-to-day decision-making.
  2. Keep the team ruthlessly small.
  3. Whenever possible, only take on contracts where there is enough mutual trust with funders and subcontractors to work with them with a minimum amount of bureaucracy. If funder decisions cannot be made swiftly, the project is probably not worth pursuing.

… in More than My Share of It All, Kelly Johnson dedicates an entire chapter to explaining the simplicity of his special sauce. In the chapter, he makes it clear that he can’t believe how few true imitators Skunk Works had — given that so many companies claimed to have their own Skunk Works. Kelly opens the chapter, a bit incredulously, writing:

What the Skunk Works does is secret. How it does it is not. I have been trying to convince others to use our principles and practices for years. The basic concept as well as specific rules have been provided many times. Very seldom has the formula been followed.

… the lack of true Skunk Works imitators will not be shocking to any who are familiar with bureaucracies. The key management principles that helped Skunk Works thrive are simply non-starters in most bureaucracies. This is precisely why so many of Kelly’s rules-of-thumb are obsessed with warding off bureaucratic processes; this is also why Ben Rich lived in such fear of bureaucracies smothering Kelly’s great band of engineers from all sides when he took over the Skunk Works.

Eric Gilliam – Managing Lockheed’s Skunk Works

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...