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Selecting such teams throws a wrench in the entire works, limiting the value of self-organization
By: Jason Bloomberg
May. 31, 2016 07:00 AM
Whenever the conversation in a large organization circles around to how to be more innovative, someone always brings up a skunkworks.
According to Wikipedia, the original Skunk Works is Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Programs (ADP), responsible for the design of several aircraft - an effort that continues to this day.
Over time, however, the term skunkworks has taken on a broader meaning. Innovation thought leader Everett Rogers (the fellow who coined the term early adopter) defined a skunkworks as "an especially enriched environment that is intended to help a small group of individuals design a new idea by escaping routine organizational procedures."
Rogers goes on to point out that "the research and development (R&D) workers in a skunkworks are usually specially selected, given special resources, and work on a crash basis to create an innovation."
For a large organization struggling with rigid hierarchies and the inflexible decision making that characterizes them, spinning off a skunkworks team seems to make sense. Set up a chic office space in a remote location, choose some particularly creative individuals, and tell them to go forth and innovate.
What could possibly go wrong?
If you've been following my research on self-organization, you might be able to discern the problem. When I talk about driving innovation with self-organizing teams, I emphasize that such self-organization includes expecting the participants to organize their own teams, give themselves their own goals, and determine for themselves how to measure their success.
In contrast, Rogers' definition of skunkworks points out that members of such teams are "usually specially selected." Good thing he added the word usually - because specially selecting such teams throws a wrench in the entire works, limiting the value of self-organization and thus the ability for the organization as a whole to become more agile.
The Skunkworks Catch
First, the individuals in the team may find that their teammates are not their preferred choice for such an effort. Good managers will be familiar enough with the skill sets as well as the personal relationships and work preferences of the people they assign to a skunkworks team, but there's a measure of guesswork for even the best manager - and of course, many are far from being the best.
Perhaps the most significant problem with assigning people to a skunkworks team, however, is what such an assignment does to the morale of their colleagues left behind.
People generally regard getting selected for such a team as a privilege, with a variety of tangential perks as well as the core opportunity to work on something innovative. From the perspective of the other people in the organization, however, they're left with the grunt work - only now, even more grunt work as some of their colleagues had the good fortune to leave such drudgery behind.
Even if we set aside the adverse morale impact of a skunkworks team on the rest of the organization, there's always the real possibility that some of the people left off of the team are also particularly creative, and would thus have some real value to contribute toward developing innovations that move the needle for the business.
Reinventing the Skunkworks
People should approach their work environment overall with a volunteer mindset, keeping their eyes open for better ways to provide value to the business.
If someone thinks they can come up with an innovation - either because they have an idea that might fly or simply because they would like to participate on a skunkworks team - they can chat with their colleagues across the organization and attempt to form such a team.
For organizations that have business agility as a strategic business driver, the role of management in this process is to communicate the strategic goals of the organization, provide the necessary resources, delineate the required constraints (for example, regulatory and security constraints), and then get out of the way.
Once the organization gets up to speed with self-organization, however, managers should no longer assign people to teams, assign tasks to teams, establish goals for teams, or decide on how teams' progress toward their goals should be measured. The people on those teams should take care of those tasks for themselves.
The self-organizing teams that result may decide to tackle various tasks depending upon the goals set out for the organization as a whole. Some such teams will focus on innovation, while others will decide to work on more tactical efforts.
Self-Organizing Beyond the Skunkworks
If you're used to thinking about large organizations in conventional ways - as most people are wont to do, unfortunately - then you're likely to see two problems with my suggestions regarding self-organized skunkworks teams: first, won't everybody jump at being on a skunkworks team, leaving routine work unfinished? And second, won't this whole process lead to a chaotic free-for-all, producing useless innovations that don't align with corporate goals or strategy?
The answer to these two problems is to learn the lesson of the DevOps Virus: self-organization should extend beyond the team level.
As we move to an organizational model consisting of a number of fluid, self-organizing teams, then self-organization will emerge at what we might call the ‘team of teams' level. In other words, if a skunkworks team is getting off-track, where its innovations appear to be misaligned to the goals of the organization, then other teams can decide amongst themselves to interact with the skunkworks team in question in order to bring the errant group back in line.
In other words, just because a team has decided to go the skunkworks route doesn't mean that lines of communication and influence that connect it to other teams are entirely severed. After all, people can still move into and out of teams as they and the teams decide, depending both on their personal preferences as well as the preferences of each team as a whole.
The goal is for all the teams taken together to have a naturally emerging self-correcting process that keeps everyone on track, even as business needs evolve and unexpected innovations change the playing field.
Just as individual teams can self-correct by deciding to eject a member, say, the entire organization can self-correct by influencing wayward teams to get with the program.
The Intellyx Take
Whenever management imposes a separation on an organization where some people get a perceived benefit that others do not, morale issues quickly form and the end result is counterproductive. This is just as true for innovation as it is for Bimodal IT, where fast, digital teams get the perceived benefit over the poor souls relegated to slow, traditional IT.
In contrast, if the expectation is that people can choose their own teams and teams can choose their own goals, then the organization benefits in two fundamental ways: the morale issue goes away, and furthermore, the fast-moving, creative, innovative aspects of every individual in the organization can be brought to bear not just to drive business velocity and innovation, but to transform those parts of the organization that would otherwise velocity and innovation back.
The one missing piece of this Cortex which will have to wait till a future issue is the question of incentives (click here to subscribe to the Cortex newsletter). Given the freedom to choose their tasks, people will naturally gravitate toward the more interesting ones, and thus other important, but less fulfilling tasks risk getting neglected.
Instituting the appropriate incentives can help to balance this equation. However, traditional incentive strategies frequently go wrong. Agile organizations, therefore, must reinvent their incentive processes and policies as well. Stay tuned!
Intellyx advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, none of the organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers. Image credit: Greg Schechter.
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