If not skunkworks, then maybe creative collaborations?

C4CC Launch

On my recent two posts on bringing the idea of skunkworks to local government, several people made the extremely reasonable point that I probably wasn’t really talking about skunkworks at all.

Steph said in the comments:

…it seems to me that we’re at risk of hanging more onto the ‘skunkworks’ peg than it’s fair to ask it to carry. To me, skunkworks is about a team delivering a tangible technical output quickly and creatively because they’ve been relieved, to a great extent, of bureaucracy and management.

I hold my hands up to this!

My time spent with Lloyd on Saturday reminded me of the really interesting work he is doing with Brian Condon and others at the Centre for Creative Collaboration in Kings Cross.

Perhaps this is a better model than a skunkworks for helping local councils improve and innovate?

Creative collaboration is all about the idea that if you put interesting people in a room together, magic starts to happen. We saw that in abundance on Saturday at GovCamp.

As the site for the Centre says, it is:

A neutral place where people from many different backgrounds – universities, large corporates, SMEs, freelancers – can work together on new things in the belief that real innovation happens at the edge and in the gaps between disciplines.

I suspect this is the sort of thing I was thinking about. I think there are two elements here for councils – the purely internal, and then opening up a bit to outside ideas.

Firstly, perhaps a local authority should have its own ‘centre for creative collaboration’ where innovative, idea-laden people work together, no matter what their role or duties. In other words, allow the networkers, the collaborators and the innovators to leave their desks and put them next to each other to create wonderful things.

This isn’t the same as a skunkworks, because these guys are still doing their day jobs – just in a different environment, where connections and collaborations can flourish, organisational boundaries be leapt over and ideas generated.

The second stage is then to open the conversation up to others, probably in a neutral space, rather than in a council building. Maybe this is something that empty shops on high streets could be used for? Just arrange Tuttle or Jelly like meetups, allowing people to hang out and talk about their work and ideas. Start off informally and see where the conversations and ideas go.

If similar initiatives are happening in places across the country, then sharing experience should be fairly easy to do through online networks.

I’d be interested in people’s thoughts!

Photo credit: Benjamin Ellis.

Bookmarks for December 30th through January 9th

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You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

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What would a local government skunk works look like?

So my post about whether local government needs skunk works got quite a reaction both in the comments and on Twitter, so it’s obviously something people are interested in discussing.

How can we move the debate forward?

Let me sketch some ideas on how it might work – feel free to comment, criticise, abuse me in the comments. I’m genuinely making this up as I go along.

1. A local government skunkworks would best operate on a networked basis – a loose central organisation of more localised groups. That way you keep small groups concentrating on local issues but sharing is still possible.

2. Due to the nature of local service delivery and related issues, it would need to be run on open innovation lines, so that people who aren;t local government officers can still get involved, eg other public services, those in the civil sector, universities (thanks Rupert in the comments) and the private sector.

3. Skunkworks operate best with specific projects to work on. Some method of identifying projects would be needed.

4. Is there a need for some kind of ownership by the local council, or at least a body responsible for service delivery? No point having an active skunk works if nothing ever actually happens!

5. Depending on the project, financing is going to be needed at some point. Where would that come from in this model?

6. Involvement of local residents will be vital – they ought to be able to join teams where they have value to add, and be kept up to date with progress and be able to comment (added thanks to Harry in the comments).

7. This isn’t just about IT or the web – it’s about any kind of innovation. Though tech likely to play a role in many innovations (added thanks to Harry in the comments).

8. Skunkworks is probably a terrible name and something friendlier is undoubtably needed (from comments on the Twitters by @anthonyzach and @dominiccampbell).

Have I got anything badly wrong? What have I missed out?

Do we need skunkworks in local government?

Simon Dickson has been doing his best to keep us up to date with the government skunkworks, the project to form a tight group of innovators in central government to work on new ideas.

If you’re new to the idea of a skunkworks, here’s the Wikipedia page. Basically, a skunkworks

is widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organisation given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects.

Steph also recently posted a couple of interviews with two public sector skunkworks style outfits, which is well worth a read.

This got me thinking: does local government need something similar? If it does, should it be a central body, or perhaps something that individual councils should have? Maybe it could be a shared service between groups of councils.

I’d be really interested in what people think.

I do wonder where innovation fits in to local government this year. After all, theoretically, it ought to be a time when organisations try new things and new ways of working to improve efficiency and reduce costs. However as Ingrid alluded to in her recent post, retrenchment might be more likely.

A quick reminder about the brilliant Little Innovation Book by James Gardner that you can read for free online and is a great primer on innovation matters.

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.