JUST HOW DO Skunkworks Projects Get Started? 1

JUST HOW DO Skunkworks Projects Get Started?

I once asked Elaine Gurian how museums can change. She said it happens in one of two ways: either the area is small and inconsequential enough that nobody is viewing, or there’s a passionate, gutsy director willing to risk his or her job. Here’s the problem with both these ways: they require circumstances that are outside of most museum employees’ control. Where’s the bottom-up option for individuals who are motivated to take action new within sprawling, bogged-down places?

Where’s the chance for risk in museums that are too large to stay away from the media’s microscope? Which third way, a way modeled in huge technology companies endeavoring to compete with young start-ups. The thing that all skunkworks projects have as a common factor is a pass from standard bureaucratic procedures (see Lockheed’s skunkworks operating rules for a good example).

Project leaders are typically given a small budget and team and let loose to work. They don’t have to complete forms or ask permission. The main point is to encourage “safe risk” by segmenting it so that the related chaos does not adversely impact the whole institution. Within a museum framework, this effectively means carving out a small group and letting them function such as a small, inconsequential, visionary institution–one that can move quickly, fail often, and hopefully innovate some new opportunities and methods for the bigger museum. The change created by these skunkworks doesn’t tear the institution apart or require vision retreats. It’s small and isolated.

The failures, the successes, and the risks are owned by a few staff in their own world. This implies not just that innovation can occur, but that it can happen in a controlled way–and can be applied, scaled, or ditched for the institution as a whole. Just how do skunkworks projects begin? You can find two ways: directive from the very best or desire from underneath. There’s more attention these days on the “from the very best” model.

Fast Company released an excellent article in 2005 about IBM’s skunkworks, the “emerging-business opportunities” (EBOs), which were initiated in 2000 by the mature vice chief executive of strategy. In IBM’s case, the EBOs carved out a space where experienced managers could develop new business models in sectors that weren’t viable in the short-term (and therefore were systematically excised by eyes focused on shareholder value). 15 billion in income in the first five years), and by stimulating entrepreneurial rising staff into avenues outside the traditional bureaucracy, IBM can hold on to people who might otherwise peel off to their own projects.

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IBM can offer these risk-takers something most startups can’t: a back-up. When EBOs fail, the teams don’t lose their jobs. IBM can learn from the mistakes, absorb the relatively small financial and morale loss, and proceed. But again, the “from the very best” model requires something that few museum personnel have: authority. And while they might get less press, the more typical route for skunkworks is grassroots.

An ambitious employee would go to a supervisor and says, “I have this crazy great idea.” The supervisor affirms the crazy-greatness of it–and it’s non-viability within the corporate structure. We’ve all done this at some point–worked on something on the side and then presented it to hopefully delighted managers. But it’s more powerful when the business has a way to support these kinds of activities, so the renegades feel institutionally connected and the quiet geniuses feel motivated to come forward.

It also allows people to propose things that are outside of their own departments. Another way to look at this is as a R&D arm for the museum. I met recently with some people from an experience-design firm who frequently do short 6-8-week studies in fields outside their expertise. Come early July, they’re creating a museum show.

There’s no client, no cash. They don’t really see it as a waste of time to try these new things–they view it as a managed way to explore new industries, technologies, and software of their skills. And they put a few of their best people, not their interns, onto these tasks. It’s a way to have their market leaders moving forward instead of spending almost all their time handling others. Ok, you might say. But why do I need to put these folks in a separate room and let them ignore the accounting forms? Doesn’t that fracture our overall institutional culture? Can’t we innovate into our current systems?