The Danger of Skunks Works

Relying on a skunks works to for innovative break through is like putting all your eggs in one basket, according to Adam Richardson on the Harvard Business Review blog.

He cites the example of Motorola whose research group developed the break-through Razr phone but failed to follow up with similar successes. Richardson said,

A small group operating autonomously can indeed succeed with audacious goals and produce something stunning. But it’s one thing to have a one-off innovative product and quite another to have a ubiquitous innovation process.

Michael O’Duffy made similar comments earlier this year at the Irish Computer Society’s series of talks on innovation. Separating the innovators from day-to-day workers can have unintended psychological side effects.

The first is that the innovation group could present themselves or be presented as a type of elite. They get to do the exciting work, the sexy projects. Others get to resent them and perhaps even sabotage the innovations when they are released in to the company at large. This happened at a company where I used to work — after I had left.

Writing in the HBR magazine in 2006, Rosabeth Moss Kanter recounted how The Timberland Company set up the Invention Factory to develop new products. Her article, Innovation: The Classic Traps, (a summary is available here), told of how the R&D group came up with some innovative new footwear only to have the sales force ignore it completely. Naturally, the product bombed. Management, meanwhile, was forced to re-evaluate its approach to innovation. It re-launched its efforts by involving the entire company.

A second problem is that those not specifically charged with innovation can tune out since it is “someone else’s job.” The problem here, of course, is that a company seeking to innovate should be looking at all areas to improve. Support staff could come up with rocess innovations, for example. These may not bring new products to market but they can save a lot of money.