Stories of Great Teams: Part 1: “Skunk Works”!

In numerous interventions that we facilitate for team building and leadership, one of the common queries that we hear is about the lack of inspiring stories of great teams in domains other than sport. Sports, of course has by its very nature, an ability to capture peoples’ imagination and keep them spellbound with its tales of courage, leadership, team spirit etc, but such stories seem to be fewer in business and other domains.

I thought it might be a good idea to share a few of such stories in this forum as well. Some of these teams are spread across geographies, businesses and domains and some of them have literally changed the world as we know it!! Since it would not do justice to compress all the stories into one post, this would be the first part of a multi-part post.

The team behind “Skunk Works”

Before coming to the team behind Skunk Works, what exactly is Skunk Works? Skunk Works is a fully owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, tasked with designing super-secret, technological marvels in aircraft engineering. From the World War II era, this division has won numerous accolades for being the brains behind the most daring, innovative advancements in aerospace design.

Lockheed Martin

Source: lockheedmartin
The story started in the World War II era, when the US Air Force, worried about the threat posed by jet fighters of the Nazis, commissioned Lockheed Martin to design a jet fighter to counter it. The team managed to turn around a proposal for a new design within just one month – this too without even being formally awarded a contract!!!This was the beginning of a long and illustrious history for Skunk Works with young engineer, Clarence “Kelly” L. Johnson at its helm.  From then on, the division has gone on to become one of the most successful (albeit secretive) units of Lockheed Martin. While there are a lot of stories around the origin of the name Skunk Works , one of the popular versions is that the team used to work out of an office situated near a malodorous factory area – this used to be an inside joke for the team(incidentally, a similar factory called “Skonkworks” was part of a popular comic strip at that time).  The legend goes that, one day a young team member picked up the phone randomly in office and answered “Skonkworks, inside man Culver speaking” and the name stuck. What followed later gives a glimpse of the culture of the team behind Skunk Works. Culver remarked in an interview much later that when Kelly Johnson heard about this, he promptly fired him. To quote Culver “ It didn’t really matter, since he was firing me about twice a day anyways.”

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Skunk Works

Source: lockheedmartin
You can read more details here about the origin of the name.

How did a small group of talented engineers turn this secretive division into one of the most respected icons of defense aircraft design? Some of the answers seem to lie with the culture that was setup in the early days of the organization. Being fiercely passionate about results has been one of the core elements of the Skunk Works culture from early days – they designed and built their first fighter in a record 143 days!!! Some of the ground rules that guided their team were so powerful that the company institutionalized them as “Kelly’s 14 Rules and Practises” – they are followed even to this day in the way they work.  With a completely unconventional approach, to cut through bureaucracy that traditionally slowed down defense programs, Kelly’s Rules became the stuff of legend in an industry known for being slow and traditional. Some of the rules are worth a special mention here –

The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems) – Clearly this is true for a lot of organizations that we have worked with as well. Most of the high performing teams that we have worked with are small, well-knit groups of individuals who are well aware of their purpose and work with an almost fanatical dedication to the team goal. This might go against the conventional wisdom where at annual company meetings, everyone is addressed as “one big team”, while in reality they are just a group of disparate individuals with different goals, sharing nothing other than the logo in their identity cards.

There must be mutual trust between the military project organization and the contractor, the very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis. This cuts down misunderstanding and correspondence to an absolute minimum – Clearly in addition to being a close knit unit, teams also have to work with other units within their own organizations or at client side. A good working relationship based on trust is essential to ensure that the team’s progress is not stymied by turf wars and lack of communication norms.

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The other rules as well, show a clarity of thought and purpose which seem to have made Skunk Works, a close knit team of fiercely independent, passionate individuals who went from success to success. The fact that the division formally incorporated Kelly’s Rules as part of the company culture is a glowing tribute to the amazing team behind Skunk Works. The results produced by the division, even 70 years after the humble origins of the division, are legendary – have a look at some of the their recent products which they have contributed to the Defense industry

SR 71 Blackbird

Source: lockheedmartin

  • The F22 Raptor, unquestionably the best fighter aircraft in existence today has been created by Skunk Works
  • In the era of the Cold War, the fastest (even today as per published data) airplane in the world, SR 71 “Blackbird” is a Skunk Works creation

You could have a look at some of their amazing recent work here.

Are there similar teams out there which have inspired you? Do share your thoughts…

Check out our other parts of “Stories of Great Teams”:

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