In the 20th century corporate skunk works® were used to develop disruptive innovation separate from the rest of the company. They were the hallmark of innovative corporations.

By the middle of the 21st century the only companies with skunk works will be the ones that have failed to master continuous innovation. Skunk works will be the signposts of companies that will be left behind.


In the 20th century companies could be leaders in a market for decades by just focusing on their core product(s). Most companies incrementally improved their products with process innovation (better materials, cheaper, product line extensions) and/or through acquisitions. Building disruptive products were thought of as “risky” and a distraction since it was not “core” to the company and did not fit existing corporate structures. Why make big bets if no one was asking for them and competitors weren’t doing so.


CIA A-12 spy plane. Developed by Lockheed Skunkworks

A few innovative companies did push the envelope. The way they did so was to set up “skunk works” to develop their most advanced, disruptive products. (IBM used the process to develop the IBM PC.) But it was Lockheed, then an aircraft manufacturer that coined the term and perfected the art. The Lockheed Skunk Works® led by Kelly Johnson was responsible for its Advanced Development Projects – everything from the P-80, the first U.S. jet fighter plane, to the U-2 and A-12 spy planes.

Skunk works differed from advanced research groups in that they were more than just product development groups. They had direct interaction with customers and controlled a sales channel which allowed them to negotiate their own deals with customers.

Decades before we were able to articulate the value of “getting out of the building” and the Lean Startup, the value in having skunk works controlling their own distribution was starkly evident. Other companies with world-class R&D groups built radical innovations only to see their company fumble the future and others reap the rewards (think of Xerox and the personal computer, Fairchild and integrated circuits, Kodak and digital photography, etc.) Common themes in these failures were, 1) without a direct connection to the customer advanced R&D groups built products without understanding user needs, and 2) the core of the company was so focused on execution of current products that it couldn’t see that the future didn’t look like the past.

Kelly Johnson’s 14 rules about how to manage a disruptive project described how to remove a small innovative team from the politics, policies, procedures and processes a large company had built to support execution of its core business (and its military customers had developed to procure large numbers of standard aircraft.)

With the vantage point of the 21st century, we can now see that a successful skunk works – separated from its corporate parent, with its own culture, in control of its own R&D and distribution channel – looked much like a startup.

But as successful as skunks works were to the companies that executed them well, innovation and execution couldn’t co-exist in the same corporate structure. Skunk works were emblematic of corporate structures that focused on execution and devalued innovation.

Until now.

Continuous Disruption Requires Continuous Innovation
In the 21st century market share is ephemeral – ask General Motors, Blackberry, Nokia, Microsoft, Blockbuster, etc. –disruption is continual.

Therefore companies need to master continuous innovation – the art of executing on core products while continually inventing new products and new businesses. That means that somehow we need to take the innovation that a skunk works removed from the core of the company and integrate the two.

Here’s how.

We need to realize that skunk works epitomize innovation by exception. But to survive companies need innovation by design.

We now know how to do just that. We can get innovation and execution to work side-by-side.

To start it requires board support and CEO and executive staff agreement. And recognition that cultural, process and procedure changes are needed to embrace learning and experimentation alongside the existing culture of execution.

I’ll provide details on how companies can organize this way in a follow-on post.

Lessons Learned

  • Skunk were advanced/disruptive product groups organizational isolated from the rest of their company
  • Skunk works had control over their sales channel and had direct customer feedback
  • World-class R&D groups that didn’t control the channel often saw their innovation die internally
  • Skunk works looked much like a startup
  • Skunk works epitomized innovation by exception
  • Companies now need innovation by design – innovation and execution that work side-by-side
  • We now know how to do this