The value of allowing "Skunk work" projects has always been controversial. On the pro side, there is an argument that it fosters individual proactivity and creativity within the organization. It also enables employees to check out some of their lower cost ideas without risking public humiliation if their ideas do not succeed. On the other hand, critics argue that such projects waste limited resources that should have been devoted to organizational priorities. I believe that both views are correct. My experience has been that the productivity of below the radar projects is maximized when those who conduct them have a clear understanding of and are in alignment with the organization's strategies and priorities. The results of Skunk work projects that are consistent with organization strategies and priorities have a much greater chance of being commercialized and operationalized than those that are not. When such projects yield a positive outcome, it does wonders for employee morale and helps foster an innovation culture.
Yes, I agree, what you point out is the main issue with flexibility in allowing informal activities or "skunk work". On one side it contributes to further development of radical ideas or overcoming confusion or ambiguity. On the other side, as you said, it alters the planning of resources and, potentially, an idea without alignemnt with strategies (or just a poor one), can be developed fr too long. Some theoretical approaches to innovation (as complexity sciences) stress that it is the dynamic interplay of two opposite forces (flexibility vs control, emergence vs planning, etc) that in fact conform what we call "innovation capability".
Another way that popular fiction gets it wrong is when a more powerful villain is about to crush our hero but the hero comes up with an ingeneous idea at the last moment that turns the tables and defeats the bad guy.
The truth is quite a different story. Recent fMRI studies have shown that it's very difficult for humans to have light bulb moments while under any kind of duress. Very few people are able to come up with insightful ideas while being yelled at, let alone tossed through brick walls. Yet this cliche storyline is a mainstay of our violence obsessed culture.
Thanks Ernesto! In my op you raised an interesting question: where does legitimacy come from when you innovate? We all heard about engineers working secretely after their innovation project was cancelled, and making a breakthrough thanks to their obstinacy. Were they right to do so? Some see themselves as revolutionnaries in the organization, avant-garde ninjas who have to work with THE OTHERS. Regardless of the management style your organization uses to generate innovation, the legtimicacy question is a right one to ask, very upstream in the process. In my opinion legitimacy stems from the consumer: shopper, user, influencer. From my pov your product manager will be right if the consumer thinks and says so, and ultimately if the solution sells well and meets your expectations on the market. Exactly the same as the team will be right if the consumer thinks and says so, and ultimately if the solution sells well and meets your expectations on the market. This is the good thing about bringing the voice of the consumer in the process: everyone works for the consumer, so everyone can work together for the consumer.
Hi Matt, you bring a very important issue to the discussion. Sometimes in the popular litterature (and also in the scientific one!) is shown a romantic picture of the heroic engineer that in a secret way saves the company by working in the shadows for deveolping an innovation. As you point out, that something is made in an informal or hidden way does not mean that is good, relevant for any user, or useful for the firm in any way. I just wanted to bring light to the paradoxical situation in many firms in which new things that challenge the status quo must be done in way outside formal procedures. Regarding your question: "were they right to do so?" I think that is just can be answered afterwards. That's maybe the most beautiful aspect of innovation.
D'oh! *palm slaps forehead* Of course! From the point of view of the outside consultant there are as many reasons as there are people. But the usual suspects are fear, greed, insecurity, inertia, nastiness, selfishness, ignorance, insensitivity, narcissism, jealousy, and the ecstasy of control. All of which seems pretty anti-social to the ordinary folk whose options are limited and would rather withhold ideas than allow them to benefit the people who have hurt them. People are very sensitive and management that is obsessed with taking the cream for themselves and leaving the whey for the workers will alienate their best resource very quickly.
As to my website, I think it's visually interesting but the text is based on the "selling the ability to sell and marketing the ability to market" model which is all I was exposed to at the time. I want to redo the text so that it appeals more to high level thinkers but maybe I'm making another mistake thinking that those people exist. Life is hard when you're capable but unqualified!
Hi Dave, I like your classification of creativity vs. innovation as can't vs won't. In general terms I agree with you. I disagree in part in understanding the resistance to adopt innovative ideas as being "assholes". Not because the use of "strong language" but because the notion of "won't" encompasses very complex indiviudal and collective cognitive and social processes. Those processes that might help us to understand innovation remain hidden if we just stay at the position of blaming the consevative and obtuse manager.
Your website is very interesting and it would be nice to know more about Engineered awareness (I've maybe asked you that before).
I see creativity versus innovation as the difference between can't and won't. Let's say you have a group of people looking for a new and creative solution and they CAN'T find one. They they would benefit from creativity training like Triz or a more integrative system like my own Engineered Awareness.
As opposed to: you have a group of people and they have plenty of good ideas but they WON'T voice them because their managers are assholes. Then this organization would benefit from Innovation consulting. Which is the difficult job of explaining to the people who are paying you money that they are the problem and no-one else. I'm much happier training people to be creative. There are so many different kinds of assholes filled with misconceptions that sorting them all out is like finding a needle in a knotted ball of detonation cord.