Kick up a stink

Written by Rick Spence

At many companies, the founder/president/CEO is the go-to person for innovation, the only employee with the customer knowledge, production expertise and strategic sense to understand what the market wants next. If you’re the one in your company who champions new ideas and pushes them to market, take a bow.

Then give yourself a slap. You’re doing it wrong.

Product development is a key challenge for every business, but it’s way too important to be left to the overworked entrepreneur. If your business is to remain relevant to your customers, you have to make innovation everyone’s job.

In my previous column, I cited several strategies for positioning your company for post-recession success. The one readers wanted to know more about was the creation of skunkworks: specialized “rogue” teams that pursue new business initiatives. Created by Lockheed during the Second World War to match the Nazis’ new jet fighter, skunkworks are committees recast as commando units charged with reinventing the business and reimagining key products.

Skunkworks have been credited with creating the U-2 spy plane, the B-2 Stealth bomber and the Macintosh computer. This very magazine was created as a skunkworks at the Financial Post. The skeleton staff, having said they believed in a magazine for small business, were told to scrounge the resources they needed and make it on their own.

And that’s the point of a skunkworks: to protect innovators from the pressures of day-to-day business. Invention and innovation require devotion, perspiration, confidence and a team spirit forged by shared sacrifice. These are motivations that can easily be quashed if an insensitive supervisor asks, “What have you accomplished today?”

But you don’t have to banish your best people into skunkworks limbo. Many companies bolster innovation by asking people to work part-time on products outside their normal work concerns. Google’s engineers devote 20% of their time to projects of their own choosing—and have products such as Google News and pay-per-click advertising to show for it.

Sadly, few Canadian firms employ skunkworks. “It’s not a wide-scale trend,” says Kitchener, Ont.-based business strategist Jim Clemmer of The Clemmer Group. “A lot of people still look at innovation as something you plan in advance, something you do in an orderly fashion.” Creating a skunkworks means handing product development over to true believers who have the time and permission to invent, fail, fix, take to market and fail again, because someone must “protect, nurture and fight for the resources to give the new idea a chance to try and prove itself,” says Clemmer.

How do you set up a skunkworks? Lockheed devised 14 rules for replicating the process that produced the first U.S. jet fighter in just 143 days. Here’s my synopsis of those rules:

1. Give the innovation manager total control of the program.

2. Restrict the number of people connected with the project “in an almost vicious manner.”

3. Minimal reports should be required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.

4. Freedom isn’t free. Perform monthly reviews covering not only what has been spent and committed but also projected costs to completion of the program.

5. Work closely with the customer(s). Include them in specifications, inspection and testing.

6. Control outsider access to the project and team.

7. Reward performance.

You don’t have to go “all stealth” to produce more innovation. Clemmer says many companies could get it simply by empowering their sales reps to listen and bring in more ideas from the front lines. “It’s a missed opportunity,” he says. “Most companies get the marketing department to tell the sales force what next year’s products ought to be, rather than getting the salespeople involved in partnering with the customer and feeding information back to the organization.”

Even so, it takes courage and conviction to champion new ideas. Consider John Kilcullen, who as CEO of IDG Books thought up the “For Dummies” series of how-to books. According to the book Lead like an Entrepreneur, Kilcullen saw a need in the computer-book market for something lighthearted and contrarian. He had to fight his company’s editorial staff and put his own neck on the line to launch the first title, DOS for Dummies. One know-it-all IDG editor told Kilcullen the title would destroy the company’s brand. Instead, it outsold every rival and launched a ubiquitous book brand.

Maybe you don’t need a skunkworks. But you do need independent thinkers who put your customers’ needs ahead of the vested needs of your organization. As CEO, your job is not to perform innovation but to make sure that the handful of real innovators on your staff feel safe and supported. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world,” said cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. “It is the only thing that ever has.”

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