As World War II exploded across Europe, the United States realized it needed a way to counteract German advances in aviation—specifically, jet aircraft. The US military asked Lockheed Martin (then the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation) to build a jet fighter. Desperate times called for desperate measures: in a month, the engineering team had a proposal. Less than six months later, working in a closely guarded circus tent, they built the first plane.
This group became known as the Skunk Works, a title that’s synonymous with an independent, autonomous group charged with innovation inside a bigger, slower-moving organization. Such groups are often immune to the restrictions and budget oversight that guides the rest of the company, and have the specific goal of working “out of the box” to mitigate the inertia of large businesses. Companies like Google and Apple adopt this same approach, creating their own advanced research groups such as the Google X Lab.
Making things change quickly is hard, and if you’re going to do it, you need authority commensurate with responsibility. If you’re trying to disrupt from within, you have a lot of work to do. Many of the lessons learned from the startup world apply, but they need to be tweaked to survive in a corporate setting.
If you work in a company of any significant size, you owe your organizational chart to an enterprising general superintendent of the railroad era ...