This is the true story behind America’s most secret and successful aerospace operation.
It’s the story of how a maverick group of scientists and engineers at Lockheed Martin continued to meet seemingly impossible deadlines—like building two state-of-the-art prototype fighter planes in only fourteen months.
It’s the story of the birth of the greatest innovation accelerator model ever used.
The Skunk Works meaning came from the location of the original remote office. It was located in a circus tent next to a stinky plastics factory. The strong smells kept people away and reminded the Lockheed team of the “Skunk Works” factory in the Lil Abner comic strips.
The assignments that the Lockheed Skunk Works engineers completed were all ridiculous in scope.
For example, build a spy plane capable of taking crystal-clear photographs from 70,000 feet and a Mach-3 aircraft fast enough to outrun enemy missiles that could fly continuously for hours on end. Also, make them invisible to enemy radar.
Lockheed’s chief engineer, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, didn’t argue or complain when he received an incredible order. Instead, he took the assignment to his Skunk Works team and told them what needed to be done.
He knew they would deliver because Skunk Works had done it before. They had a system of working together that made the impossible-possible.
Following Lockheed Martin’s example, Skunk Works have been adopted by businesses like Walmart, Alphabet’s Google X, Oracle, and Dupont.
Whenever a business needs to do something bold, “going Skunk” is a great way to get innovation done.
What is this secret sauce that keeps these corporate titans ahead of the rest?
The Skunk Works Project Legacy
It was 1943. German jets were threatening all of Europe. The Pentagon sent Lockheed Martin a secret mission: build the US a fighter jet that could defeat the Germans—and do it in 150 days.
Lockheed knew that this special assignment would require a new way of working. They rounded up their best and brightest engineers and isolated them from the rest of the company.
They formed the first Skunk Works around these principles:
- The engineers were given complete autonomy to work as they saw fit.
- They would report directly to the CEO, cutting out unnecessary chains of command.
- They would focus on creating smaller experiments first in order to get better feedback rapidly.
- They would immediately apply that feedback to quickly improve.
The result? They built a laser-fast fighter jet in only 143 days (7 days ahead of schedule). It was called the P-80 Shooting Star and it won history’s first jet-versus-jet dogfight in 1950.
The Skunk Works at Lockheed Martin went on to achieve legendary status. The book Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed by Ben Rich and Leo Janos (1996, Little Brown & Company) covers their historic achievements in great detail.
After their first success, they applied the Skunk Works method again to create the world’s first spy plane in 1954 that could take crystal clear pictures at 70,000 feet.
They followed that up with the even more impressive SR-71 Blackbird in 1963.
The team often worked hard, ten-hour days, six days a week to meet their deadlines.
But it wasn’t the time they put in that mattered. It was the way they worked that made them exceptional.
It’s the reason many of their methods are copied by the most innovative companies today.
Why The Skunk Works Model Works
The first key of the Skunk Works philosophy is to tackle big goals.
Companies don’t form Skunk Works to do business as usual. A Skunk Works team is focused on high, hard goals.
These goals lead to the best outcomes because they demand attention and persistence.
The second key may be the most important of all—isolation.
Isolated, a Skunk Works team is protected from the corporate bureaucracy that often freezes innovation.
Isolation also encourages risk-taking and rapid experimentation. No idea is too wild to try. That’s the attitude that leads to bigger and better things.
The third key is fast feedback.
Part of the Skunk Works secret to success is getting big corporations to work small and communicate more effectively.
The smaller the feedback loops within a team, the better that team will perform.
Steven Kotler says, “The road to bold is paved with failure.”
Having an environment of rapid feedback where people can fail a lot and learn quickly from their mistakes is critical to a Skunk Works success.
Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn says, “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
Skunk Works allows creative people to try their crazy ideas—which can lead to groundbreaking results.
The fourth key is intrinsic rewards.
Most companies have a culture of extrinsic rewards (external motivators). Managers reward the behavior they want more of and punish the behavior they dislike.
But a growing amount of scientific research is showing the shortcomings of this behavior. It can actually crush the high-level, creative concepts that are essential to progress. Workers become more concerned with their own survival than advancing the company.
Instead, the Skunk Works model rewards intrinsic things like autonomy, mastery and purpose.
These rewards go above someone’s basic survival needs to impact a deep emotional desire to live a purpose-filled, self-directed life.
In the end, intrinsic rewards are much more powerful motivators.
Skunk Works creates a successful startup incubator inside a separate larger business by:
- Having high, hard goals.
- Isolating the team.
- Getting fast feedback and rapidly adjusting based on it.
- Motivating people through intrinsic rewards.
How Skunk Works Projects Use Feedback as Fuel
Let’s take a deeper dive into the feedback key because it’s often misunderstood.
What is feedback? Information about a system that is used as a basis for improvement.
A healthy feedback cycle looks like this:
Input → System → Output → Feedback → Input...
The immediate feedback you receive on your latest output informs the new input you use for future output.
The more feedback cycles you have the better your system becomes.
What Type of Feedback is Useful for Innovation?
For feedback to work It should be task-focused. Individuals and teams need feedback, not reassurance in order to improve.
In Steven Kotler’s years of covering elite athletes as a journalist, he learned that “confident, elite performers ask for feedback, not reassurance.”
Reassurance only pads fragile egos. Feedback (especially criticism) leads to better results.
Feedback is useful when it gives you data that enables more rapid, accurate improvement of anything.
What’s the biggest feedback blocker? Ego. It’s important for Skunk Works teams to realize that an individual’s ego must be left at the door.
The Lockheed Martin Skunk Works engineers wanted to fail early and often in their plane designs. That way, they could quickly eliminate wrong directions and improve their process with each output. It’s the only way they were able to meet those insane deadlines.
How to Get More Feedback in Your Life
Shift your perception to become a feedback seeker.
Ask for feedback constantly.
Respond to feedback like a pro. (Respond well to feedback leads to more feedback and more desired output. Responding negatively to feedback reduces future feedback and results in less output.
The five steps to responding to feedback like a pro:
- Acknowledge the good intentions of the feedback giver.
- Listen to understand, not respond.
- Ask clarifying questions to better understand the feedback.
- Summarize the feedback received to ensure accurate interpretation.
- Say “Thank You.” Especially if feedback is critical.
Apply lean methodology. Evaluate everything: relationships, decisions, resources BEFORE committing resources.
Going Skunk describes an enriched environment intended to help a small group of individuals design new ideas.
It’s one way to achieve the Art of Impossible (which happens to be the title of Steven Kotler’s newest book).
We also recommend reading Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandes’ book, “Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World” (2015, Simon & Schuster).