Four Variables the Led to the Skunk Works
The business press often links the term "Skunk Works" to tech goliaths like Facebook's Building 8 or Alphabet Inc's Google X or even Amazon's and Apple's secret labs. But if I mentioned Clarence "Kelly" Johnson or Ben Rich to innovation students and proteges, those names may elicit nothing but shrugs.
Who were the original Skunk Works?
Clarence "Kelly" Johnson was the founding leader of the Skunkworks, the original pseudonym for Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Projects, with Ben Rich succeeding him from 1975-1991. By 1984, Kelly had received 50+ rewards and achievements from his legendary contributions to American aviation history.
Kelly was the originator of the moonshot and seeker of blue oceans and open skies. The interdisciplinary creativity between his engineers, scientists, technicians, mathematicians, and test pilots would prevail under his leadership, and would lead the Skunk Works to develop aviation's most renowned aircraft like the P-80, U-2, and SR-71.
His famous 14 Rules embodying the Skunk Works concepts intersect what present-day entrepreneurial gurus and giants would denote as lean, agile, continuous innovation, rapid prototyping, etc. The Skunk Works operationalized all those things in their most common sense form and ensured their organization ran that way.
In his own words, Kelly defines Skunk Works
Tech writers would typically emphasize a secret physical lab empowered with unfettered creative freedom and unlimited resources. However, Kelly in his autobiography defined Skunk Works plainly like this:
My early definition of the Skunk Works holds true today: The Skunk Works is a concentration of a few good people solving problems far in advance – and at a fraction of the cost – of other groups in the aircraft industry by applying the simplest, most straightforward methods possible to develop and produce new projects. All it is really is the application of common sense to some pretty tough problems.
Many Skunk Works projects operated under tight secrecy, but how the Skunk Works operated was so simple and undeviating: To learn how to do things quickly and cheaply, meaning continuous on-the-fly learning, experimentation, and improvement because there was no one way to build all airplanes. The Skunk Works used those tried and true principles to establish a legacy of innovation including the F-80, U-2, F-117, SR-71. No luxurious business case studies or academic pontification required to drive that simple point home.
Deploying unorthodox methods to aircraft design took constant creative ferocity. If a way, method, or tool didn't exist, they had to totally invent it along the way. I've decoupled that subtle interplay of disparate events of how "stealth technology" came about in "Innovation is a Combination."
Kelly: "What the Skunk Works does is secret. How it does it is not."
Ben Rich shared Kelly's sentiment that how they operated wasn't really a secret.
The secret of Kelly Johnson's success was really no secret. He was not only one of the world's foremost designers, but he was an innovative manager who gave people who worked for him challenges to constantly create better products. Many of us in the Skunk Works turned down promotions to other Lockheed organizations to stay with Kelly. And uppermost for Kelly was to stay with the Skunk Works. He was offered a company presidency at Lockheed three times— and three times he declined it. 'To me,' said Kelly, 'there was no better job within the corporation than head of Advanced Development Projects—the Skunk Works.'
Don't copy the tech industry
It's true we can siphon plenty of inspiration from tech superstars, but to my friends in military and defense: we have plenty of strategic and tactical inspiration that we can summon in our own legacy. Perhaps even in your own R&D labs or buried deep in the collective data banks of our own organization. Some of that legacy remains unsung and sadly drowned out by the excruciating mainstream business press of our times that subtly encourages you to celebrate and copy their successes.
By the way, don't copy Silicon Valley, either.
Tech writers habitually borrow the historical successes of defense and military Skunk Works to prop up currently popular entrepreneurship practices that are now deployed in product, service, and software development. There's an assumption that our forefathers had used similar winning strategies that made these internet tech companies succeed as well; after all, rapid prototyping, small teams, no committees, and small meetings are popular themes.
What's overlooked are the subtleties and the context of what the defense industry builds for its customers: The original skunks were building actual planes for actual servicemen who may someday encounter combat. The breadth and width of government requirements – together with the collaboration of people, processes, expertise, and risk of lives to accomplish such precise feats – is a moonshot of magnitude compared to, say, building an app that hopefully sells and scales.
And there's a disconnect sometimes on what Skunk Works did and did not do. For example, while Kelly resented committees, long reports, and other non-productive filler activities, a plane's prototype specs still needed to be validated and reworked by dozens of experts and specialists from the likes of theoretical physicists, materials engineers, cognitive scientists, and aircraft designers.
Even though the Skunk Works controlled their sales channel, Kelly still had to meet with generals, politicians, and government insiders to meet certain requirements.
In opposition to the common belief that the Skunk Works never held meetings, they did. They just kept it tight and to the point. Kelly resented useless meetings, but that doesn't imply no meetings. In Ben Rich's memoir "Skunk Works," weekly progress meetings were the norm.
And finally, could you build a skunk works today? The Four Ingredients
Dr. Alton D. Romig has served as Vice President of ADP Engineering & Advanced Systems at Lockheed Martin Corporation since July 2013. He's currently "Chief Skunk" at the ADP. He believes the term Skunk Works has been widely used, watered down, and almost rendered as generic.
During his History of Lockheed presentation at the AIAA Propulsion and Energy Conference of 2014, he asserted yes and no. For aviation? No.
But he did narrow it down to four ingredients unique to their times in the mid 20th century that made an aviation Skunk Works possible.
1. Rapidly Maturing Field
Imagine a steep curve going up. Aviation was a rapidly maturing area with other rising stars accompanying Kelly Johnson like Bill Boeing, Jack Northrop, Howard Hughes, et al. A similar trend had played out during the tech boom of the nineties and with social media and startups in the early 21st century.
2. Existential Threats
Americans received word from the Allies that the Germans had built a fighter aircraft with a jet engine. Losing the war to the Axis powers was a real existential threat. This had incited the challenge from the Allies to build a fighter aircraft to counter the Germans.
3. Unconstrained Resources
And because of those existential threats, the American government had the unlimited dollars to pour into top secret defense projects.
4. "Magical People"
Dr. Romig believed "magical people" were the final ingredient to the Skunk Works. In this case, Clarence Kelly Johnson.
Romig believed those four variables were the kindle that created the flash in the 1940s onward. During his presentation at the AIAA 2014, he left the audience with this:
Trying to create a skunk works in aviation today would be difficult...I think what happens is that the culture self-perpetuates. Every generation comes along and teaches the next how the culture works. I can't write down the secret sauce and put it in a jar. If I could, I could probably be a rich consultant but I don't know how to do that because it just seems that one generation seems to infect the next once they move on.
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The founding story on the official Lockheed website
A long-form biography of Clarence Kelly Johnson and his achievements
Further Reading and Watching:
The research and technology for reducing a plane's radar signature down to the size of a marble was not a flash of insight. To demystify how it really happened, read "Innovation is a Combination."
Ben Rich: Skunk Works. (Many books were written to chronicle the legendary innovations of the original Skunk Works. Dr. Romig says that the best book out there will be the one written by Ben Rich, second director of the Skunk Works, titled "Skunk Works." I agree, it's an impressive memoir and full of stories that pulls you in from start to finish.)
Clarence Kelly Johnson's Autobiography: "More Than My Share of It All"
Clarence Kelly Johnson's 14 Rules
Clarence Kelly Johnson More Than My Share of It All: Chapter 16 "It's No Secret"
Chief Skunk Dr. Alton Romig's Biography
Bonus: Dr. Romig answered someone's question on what makes a skunk. What does the ADP look for in an engineer? Listen to Dr. Romig's answer here around the 1:05:26 mark