Is your business in danger of getting historied by the COVID-19 pandemic? Of course it is. Companies of all sizes and categories are facing the same set of unprecedented uncertainties. The same existential threats. And an opportunity for new possibilities to emerge from the disruption.
The story structures that built belief in a company’s mission and confidence in the people leading it — quarterly analysts’ calls, annual reports, sales forecasts, stockholder meetings, focus groups, market research, revenue estimates, CEO and board leadership — feel like worn-out genres. Sticking with the status-quo now is like trying to enjoy a movie when the theater is on fire.
“Ted (Turner) tells stories and the rest of us try to make them come true.” - an executive for Turner Network Television, back in the 1980s, at the dawn of cable TV.
Gone are the days when a charismatic founder like Ted Turner could tell a story and have the entire organization focused on making his fictions come true. We are starting to see profound differences between organizations, communities and governments trying to make leaders’ fictions come true, versus those who are taking an inclusive approach to co-creating a future from employees’, customers’ and citizens’ realities.
Co-creative groups don’t try to impose their narrative logic on the virus. They are open to the logic of the virus. They are curious. They look for possibilities amidst the challenges. This pandemic is influencing all of us, and the more our actions honor that reality, the more effectively we can move past it to a world transformed in positive ways.
What is available to an organization and its leadership when there's a lack of logic, historical reference, a reliable story, and certainty to rely on? And how we can maintain focus and see a path forward when new data rolls in every day completely dislodging the logic of the day before?
First, trust your senses. In particular, your sense of smell — follow your nose. Do you smell skunk in the air? Skunks give off a distinctive aroma, and there’s no mistaking it for any other. Skunk-sniffing is not what you’d call pleasant work. It’s not going to conjure memories of the beach in Aruba, or your mother’s kitchen, or church on Sundays, or your grandpa’s aftershave. No, it will only smell like skunk, and will only remind you of skunks you’ve smelt before.
The truth is that skunks have a purpose in an organization. They ward off status quo and serve as a catalyst for movement and change. Organizations need them now more than ever — like a sailboat needs wind. Neither leadership nor outside help, nor a bailout, nor a loan or investor, can deliver the super doses of curiosity, ingenuity, and maniacal focus that skunk works can.
You might be remembering skunk works as a failed concept of the past. Skunks and their works began getting a bad name in business around the time the likes of Motorola and Polaroid deodorized their operations, 10-12 years ago. They were a burden on the bottom line. An unjustifiable cost. Inefficient, hard to manage, impossible to contain in a quantifiable box. Groups of experimenters tended to be excluded from the core organization, and worse, the vast majority of the organization felt alienated from efforts to innovate. A 2014 Forbes article characterized the demise of skunk works: “By the middle of the 21st century the only companies with skunk works will be the ones that have failed to master continuous innovation. Skunk works will be the signposts of companies that will be left behind.”
There is a lot of merit to these past learnings that we can take into the next iteration of skunk works. Reinvention is about using what we’ve learned to build something new, better. Let's take a look at two companies' stories to gain further insight into the winning and losing aspects of skunk works.
Photo credit: Copyright Lemsipmatt
In 2006, the Razr ruled the mobile phone world and Motorola’s fortunes rose with it. But by 2008, Motorola’s mobile division was sinking like a rock, and was on the auction block.
The first thing that happened was the casting of a team of of 25 skunks chosen for complementary skills and temperaments. They set up an external lab in a facility distanced from the Motorola HQ. The team had one very clear, unambiguous and measurable objective: Design and produce the thinnest mobile phone on the market.
They did it. It was a huge hit with young trend-setting customers. A best-seller. Motorola made a ton of money with that phone. Until they made a big strategic mistake — they began chasing the smell of money instead of the skunk.
In other words, instead of replicating the process that produced their hit product, they replicated the product itself. They manufactured dozens of variations of the Razr-thin phone, with names like Razr2, Pink Razr, Razr Maxx, and the Dolce & Gabanna Limited Edition Gold Razr3.
Because they were product-focused instead of customer- and process-focused, Motorola missed the smell of skunk-heavy competitors in the distance. Companies like Samsung and LG were designing the first wave of apps and 3G technologies that turned phones into feature-rich software devices.
According to Wikipedia: “Motorola's strategy of grabbing market share by selling tens of millions of low-cost Razrs cut into margins and resulted in heavy losses in the cellular division.”
By believing the secret to their success was only a product and not also a process, Motorola missed opportunities to focus on customer needs and preferences, and tap into the intelligence of the full organization like their Razr team did.
Photo credit: Cole Keister
Now get a whiff of this Polaroid story:
They called it The Impossible Project.
When the Polaroid company announced in 2008 that it would no longer make Polaroid Instant Cameras, it seemed to ensure the death of Polaroid Instant Film.
A group of Dutch and German skunks acquired a Polaroid factory in Enschede, Netherlands, with the intention of continuing the production of the Instant Film.
It’s just that —
Their purchase of the factory did not include the IP for the Instant Film production formula, or the Polaroid brand name.
They had to start from scratch and create a new formula. The only way to do it was by experimentation, a path that led to a soul-crushing number of failures with skeptical customers. They knew what they were up against. Hence the name. They called it what it was, The Impossible Project.
And then, around 2012 —
Their experiments began to pay off. The quality of the images produced by the film improved dramatically. Serious Polaroid shooters noticed. Customers began coming back. The value of Polaroid Instant Cameras rose.
Within another couple of years, the quality of The Impossible Project’s film, which went by the name of PX-100 Impossible Film, got to be of a better quality than the original film.
Meanwhile, the Polaroid company was floundering through an ill-fated series of turnaround strategies that involved moves like hiring celebrities as Creative Directors.
In 2017 —
A feature documentary called Instant Dreams, the story of the Impossible Project, got released around the world.
In 2018 —
The Impossible Project team reached an agreement with Polaroid to make and market their film under the original brand name, Polaroid Originals.
In March of this year, just when the news was getting bad for everyone else, it got really good for the Impossible Project. They bought the Polaroid brand name. Today, they are the Polaroid company. They took one small piece of flotsam the company had cast off in 2008, and from it they built a new mothership.
This is the power of skunks. The group of Dutch and German skunks created a safe space in which they could be curious and passionately pursue the art of the possible.
So, how do we reinvent skunk works now, when we're all at risk of simply digitizing status quo in our pursuit of what's next? How do we nurture the curiosity and creative power that skunk works were intended to deliver continuously and at scale?
Consider the following guiding principles for a reinvention of skunk works that will have you coming up smelling of roses:
- Establish narrative as a common lexicon for sense-making and problem-solving — leverage reinvented skunk works as a standard mode of operation.
- Create a safe and inclusive space that allows everyone to contribute authentically, at full potency.
- Leverage cognitive diversity, along with complementary skills, knowledge and experiences across and adjacent to your organization.
- Make it easy for cross-functional and cross-disciplinary teams to collaborate and problem-solve, together.
- Maintain a sense of tempo and focus that lifts energy, productivity and morale.
- Empower teams with autonomy to own the problem.
- Build trust across teams with co-created resolution to a shared challenge.
- Use virtualization to reveal previously unseen connections.
21 Day Story can help turn your entire organization into a skunk works laboratory, where the lights are always on, employees are actively engaged in problem-solving, and innovation emerges organically. Do you smell that? Smells like a brighter future.
The 21 Day Story framework provides structure guiding diverse and dispersed teams through collaborative problem-solving and co-creation of a plan of action to resolve big challenges. Big challenges like reinvention, new offerings, and up-leveling experiences for customers and employees alike. We provide sprint contributors with a safe and inclusive space to be curious, focus, and participate at full potency.