Skunkworks in Software: Not Just a Buzzword, But Your Ticket to Success

WhiteFish Creative Ltd
8 min readOct 12, 2023
Skunkworks

In the software industry, where buzzwords come and go, the concept of a skunkworks team has stood the test of time. Rooted in Lockheed Martin’s secret projects division during World War II, today’s skunkworks teams in software development represent a dedicated, autonomous group focused on innovation. If you’re skeptical (as any seasoned developer should be), let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of why and how you should set one up.

What is a Skunkworks Team?

The term “skunkworks” might sound like a relic from the past, but in the software realm, it’s more relevant than ever. Representing a dedicated, autonomous team laser-focused on innovation, a skunkworks team is about pioneering breakthroughs that can give your company a competitive edge.

Setting Up a Skunkworks Team

Before embarking on this journey, pinpoint the exact need or the organisation. Are you aiming to break into a new market, overhaul an outdated system, or address a specific industry challenge? Understanding the “why” behind your skunkworks team will provide direction and purpose.

Team Composition

Crafting the perfect skunkworks team is an art, it can require some or all of the following, but don’t make the mistake of throwing too many people at the problem as you will simply end up in red tape and arguments. Be light, Be nimble (I didn’t say agile) and be ready to pivot quickly.

Team members can include, multiple roles could be taken on by a single person, and you are not limited to the following:

Project Manager

Someone adept at managing resources, timelines, and serving as the liaison between the skunkworks team and the rest of the company.

Technical Lead

A seasoned developer with a broad understanding of technologies and the specific challenges at hand.

Designers

Visionaries who can craft user-friendly interfaces and experiences.

Developers

A mix of senior and junior talent brings both experience and fresh perspectives.

QA/Testers

Quality assurance is paramount. These individuals ensure the end product is up to par.

Domain Experts

Depending on the project, someone with specific industry knowledge can be a game-changer, although not always needed, as knowing the domain can sometimes stop you thinking outside the box towards whats possible rather than just building on the currently known and understood.

Resource Allocation, Beyond tools and tech

Budget

A clear budget, with a buffer for unforeseen costs, ensures smooth sailing.

Workspace

A dedicated space, whether physical or virtual, can foster collaboration and innovation.

Training

If new technologies or methodologies are in play, allocate resources for up skilling.

Boundaries

Autonomy doesn’t equate to anarchy. Set clear parameters regarding the project’s scope, timeline, and reporting mechanisms to ensure alignment with broader company goals.

Running a Successful Skunkworks Team

Clear Objectives

Break down the project into tangible goals and KPIs, whether based on user engagement, performance metrics, or specific deliverables.

In the realm of skunkworks, where innovation and agility are paramount, having clear objectives is the foundation of success. Without a well-defined roadmap, even the most talented teams can veer off course. To ensure alignment:

Tangible Goals
Every project, even these research projects, should be broken down into actionable steps. This not only provides direction but also allows for measurable progress. For instance, if the project is to develop a new software tool, milestones could include initial design, prototype development, the different phases of testing, and so on.

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
These are quantifiable metrics that will gauge the project’s success. Depending on the project, KPIs could range from user engagement rates, reduction in processing times, to the number of downloads or sign-ups. They offer a quantifiable measure of success and areas that need improvement.

Fostering a Culture of Innovation

Reward Innovation

Recognise team members who bring groundbreaking ideas to the table, as
innovation thrives when it’s recognised and rewarded. It’s essential to:

Celebrate Breakthroughs
Whether it’s a new feature that enhances user experience or a process that streamlines operations, every innovative solution should be celebrated.

Incentivise Creativity
Consider implementing a reward system, such as bonuses, promotions, or even simple recognition, for team members who consistently bring groundbreaking ideas to fruition.

Regular Check-ins

More than status updates, these sessions should realign the team with company goals, address challenges, and ensure the team has the necessary resources. These sessions should:

Realign with Objectives
Ensure that the team’s efforts align with the project’s objectives and the company’s broader goals. Catching the projects before they drift too far of course is imperative, and much easier to remedy sooner rather than later.

Validate Resource Allocation
Check-ins provide an opportunity to ensure the team has the necessary tools, resources, and support to succeed. This could be tech, people or simply direction and a nod to say “yes! that is looking great”

Address All Challenges
These sessions can be a platform for team members to voice concerns, challenges, or roadblocks they’re facing, allowing for timely solutions. Those roads blocks can be small problems, but they could also be concerns that what they’re building has been done before, won’t work or is just a pointless endeavour.

Feedback Mechanism

Incorporate external feedback through alpha/beta testing and user surveys to refine the product based on real user insights.

Alpha/Beta Testing
Before a full-scale launch, consider releasing the product to a select group of users for feedback. This real-world testing can provide insights into usability, bugs, and areas of improvement.

User Surveys
Regularly solicit feedback from users through surveys. This not only provides actionable insights but also makes users feel valued and involved in the product’s evolution.

Feedback Loops

Feedback shouldn’t be a one-off event. Establishing continuous feedback loops ensures that the product or solution is always evolving and improving. These loops are helpful:

Promotes Growth
By continuously iterating based on feedback, the end product becomes more refined and better suited to user needs.

Encourages Communication
Regular feedback fosters open communication between the team and stakeholders or users, ensuring everyone is on the same page.

Hackathons

The old trusty favourite of all Agile coaches, organise a hackathon! These sessions are for brainstorming and prototyping outside the main project’s constraints. It’s give the teams chance to experiment and explore, don’t make these an afternoon or even a day, two to three days is best, even a week to actually make something work while. This isn’t just some new aged, fluffy idea, this can be refreshing for the teams.

By expanding on these principles, businesses can ensure their skunkworks teams are not only innovative but also aligned with company objectives, user needs, and industry best practices.

Challenges and Considerations

While skunkworks teams can drive innovation, they’re not without challenges. Potential misalignments with company objectives, integration of innovations into existing systems, and managing a high degree of autonomy can be tricky. But with the right guidance (subtle hint: someone like me), these challenges become stepping stones to success.

Alignment with Company Vision

One of the most significant challenges skunkworks teams face is ensuring their innovative projects align with the broader company vision. Given their autonomy, there’s a risk that the team might deviate from the company’s strategic objectives. As mentioned above, regular check-ins can help mitigate this risk.

Integration with Existing Systems

Skunkworks teams often work on cutting-edge projects that might not easily integrate with a company’s existing systems. This can lead to compatibility issues, requiring additional time and resources to address.

Always remind the teams that there needs to be some way to integrate, but that it should not stop innovation.

Resource Allocation

While skunkworks teams should have a degree of autonomy in terms of resource usage, there’s a fine line between autonomy and excessive resource consumption. Balancing the team’s needs with the company’s broader resource allocation can be challenging.

Managing Autonomy

Too much autonomy can sometimes lead to a lack of accountability. It’s essential to strike a balance where the team feels empowered to innovate but is also held accountable for their actions and decisions.

Expectation Management

Given the innovative nature of skunkworks projects, there’s often a lot of excitement and high expectations surrounding their outcomes. Managing these expectations, both within the team and the broader organisation, is crucial to ensure that the team doesn’t feel undue pressure, and the company understands the experimental nature of such projects.

Knowledge Transfer

Once a skunkworks project is deemed successful, transferring the knowledge and technology to the broader organisation can be challenging. Ensuring proper documentation, training, and support is crucial for a smooth transition.

Cultural Fit

Skunkworks teams often have a different working culture compared to the rest of the organisation, given their focus on rapid innovation and experimentation. Ensuring that this culture doesn’t clash with the broader company culture is essential for harmony and collaboration.

Scalability Concerns

Innovations developed by skunkworks teams might work well on a small scale but could face challenges when scaled up to meet the needs of the entire organisation or a broader user base. Addressing these scalability concerns early on can save time and resources in the long run.

By understanding and addressing these challenges and considerations, companies can ensure that their skunkworks teams operate effectively and contribute positively to the organisation’s overall objectives.

Real World Skunkworks

History is filled with skunkworks success stories. Analysing these offers insights into best practices and strategies that can be emulated, from revolutionary apps to industry-standard software tools.

Amazon Prime Air

In 2013, Amazon announced its ambitious project, Prime Air, aiming to use drones for delivering packages to customers. This initiative was developed by a skunkworks team that worked on creating drone prototypes capable of carrying packages and navigating safely to customers’ homes. While regulatory challenges persist, the project showcases Amazon’s forward-thinking approach to logistics.

More details can be found here: https://www.aboutamazon.com/news/transportation/amazon-prime-air-prepares-for-drone-deliveries

Microsoft’s Project Natick

Launched in 2015, Project Natick is Microsoft’s experimental initiative to determine the feasibility of underwater data centers. The skunkworks team behind this believed that underwater data centers could be more sustainable and efficient. In 2020, after a two-year test run, the underwater datacenter was retrieved, and the results were promising in terms of reliability and performance.

More information on Natick here: https://natick.research.microsoft.com/

SpaceX’s Starship

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been working on the Starship spacecraft, aiming to carry humans to Mars and other destinations. Developed by a dedicated team with a skunkworks mindset, Starship prototypes have undergone several tests, with each iteration improving upon the last. The project exemplifies the rapid innovation possible with a focused team.

Learn more about Starhip: https://www.spacex.com/vehicles/starship/

Adobe’s Project Aero:

Introduced in 2018, Project Aero is Adobe’s augmented reality (AR) authoring tool. Developed by a skunkworks team, Aero aims to democratise AR creation, allowing designers to create immersive content without extensive coding. It’s a testament to Adobe’s commitment to staying at the forefront of design innovation.

Augment your reality with more details here: https://www.adobe.com/uk/products/aero.html

Alphabet’s Project Wing

Originating from X, Alphabet’s moonshot factory, Project Wing is focused on drone delivery. The skunkworks team has been working on creating drones that can deliver goods efficiently and safely. In 2019, Wing became one of the first drone delivery companies to receive FAA certification for commercial deliveries in the U.S.

More X-wing information flies at you right here: https://x.company/projects/wing/

Skunkworks teams are more than just a buzzword; they’re a blueprint for innovation in software development. With the right setup and guidance, they can be transformative for any organisation. And if you’re looking for someone to guide you through this journey, well, you know where to find me.

Ready to harness the power of a skunkworks team? Let’s connect. Together, we can navigate the intricacies and set your organisation on a path to innovation and success.

--

--

WhiteFish Creative Ltd

James Studdart: Bespoke software solutions, in .Net, Flutter, Python, C#, JS, and designs. A popular podcast host. https://www.linkedin.com/in/jamesstuddart/