Social media skunkworks?

My good friend Robert Brook – one of the most active and entertaining people I follow on Twitter – was recently interviewed by Chris Dalby, and it was caught on video.

In it, Robert discusses the work he does at the UK Parliament as a ‘skunkworks’ – for those that don’t know, this is:

typically developed by a small and loosely structured group of people who research and develop a project primarily for the sake of innovation

Sounds like fun. The origin of the phrase is from Lockheed Martin, in case you are interested.

This way of fostering innovation and getting things done – by taking it under the radar – is an interesting one and something I have heard from others, who have spoken about organisations having a ‘splinter-cell’ for social media, or describing innovative web stuff being done as ‘black ops’.

It ties in with a lot of the stuff that Cisco’s Guido Jouret said at the Cisco Public Sector Summit that I covered late last year. Some of the things that can stife innovation in large organisations, said Guido, include:

  • too much money – projects lose focus
  • too much time – projects drift
  • too many people – not everyone believes in the project as much as they need to
  • too much love – people get too attached to failing projects and
  • too much hate – jealousy elsewhere in the organisation kills projects

As a result, innovation projects have limited budgets, timescales, small teams, spend a lot of time in ‘stealth mode’ (skunkworks?) and people on teams are kept close.

A lot of the good work that goes on in the public sector with the web happens on the quiet, guerilla style. If thing are really going to change, then this needs to stop and we need these projects out in the open, not to have people worried about talking about them openly.

However, that needs a culture shift and it might not happen soon. In the meantime, we need to get stuff done, and if it has to happen in a skunkworks style, then so be it.

4 thoughts on “Social media skunkworks?”

  1. I’d add another: too much logic.

    It’s hard to deny that ‘joining up’, ‘sharing’, ‘co-ordinating’ and so on are all jolly good ideas in the spirit of efficient use of taxpayers’ money. But though that might be true in the short run, longer term you’ll find that all that sensible, corporate joining-up is a massive drain on the team’s ability to deliver and above all, its creativity.

    There’s a strong argument for more skunkworks in government (a couple of people, more or less ignored, for a few months, with the tacit permission of someone smart and senior enough to give them air cover) in order to really push innovative approaches forward.

  2. Working in a skunkworksy environment myself, I can see how this ought to be all out in the open. I guess there’s a tension in structured organisations with the notions of crowdsourcing and mass participation, as they’re mainly recognised as “add ons” – when to make the best use of these techniques, you need make existing processes & structures more “porous” to change – not focus as much on outputs and more on outcomes (many ppl confuse the two, because its harder to achieve the latter than the former).

    We involve individuals on specific projects in a very “1% solution” way – how much support they will provide, how much influence they will have on the decision makers and how much impact they will have on the project.

    …or you could go for the google approach of giving people 10% of their working week to think up & take fwd innovative ideas.

  3. Nice encapsulation of various bits of thinking. I like the “skunkworks” tag, too.

    I’m all too familiar with the issue, having been in the museum sector as a web person for years, and now working with local government and HE. The over-engineering, project management and *weight* of projects is typically incredibly intense. They gain a momentum with size and time, and this momentum – as you point out – often hinders rather than helps. I talked about the huge weight of process in a recent post, and also the need to accept that amazing things can bloom when perfection is lacking. “Skunkworksey” projects can work on assumptions and imperfections because with no budgets and small teams they usually can’t fall very far when things do go wrong. Which they will, with innovation in the equation.

    The balance between innovation and – how can I put this – what many see as “the real job” is almost always broken, but badly needs fixing. In both my previous job and the one I’m in now there is absolutely the tacit understanding that “under the radar” is the only way to get things done.

    I’ve written consistently about the need to play, and about how “justification” of this playing simply won’t come in the short term. An innovative concept is almost always a hole in the ground financially and in time terms, certainly in the first stages. Accepting that innovation will only come from cost is something that many company boards simply won’t swallow. They should, but they don’t. The Google 70/20/10 way of working is all very well, but try selling it to executives: “Yes, we’re going to spend 30% of the time we were spending making money innovating instead. Income? No, probably not. Risk? Oh yes, pretty high”.

    In my experience, the best way of approaching the issue of surfacing the sub-radar projects is to innovate in small skunk-worksy teams, make something really cool and useful, then roll it out (possibly internally) until it is a tool that everyone wants in on. Once momentum has gathered, the executive usually sits up and notices.

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