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  D.F.'s Column Archive

March 26, 2007

Skunkworks Groups: Destined To Be Corporatized


So. It’s come to this, has it?


Employees who want to come up with good ideas have apparently been driven underground, a situation that has given rise to the latest deep, dark, on-the-verge-of-trendy movement in business.


Say hello to skunkworks groups.


You haven’t heard of this? Well, if you’re the boss, that’s good. The whole idea is that you’re not supposed to know about it, because all you would do is ruin the whole thing. Then again, I’m the boss, and I know. But I have spies.


A skunkworks group is a small assemblage of people – often three or four – who meet in the shadows, away from the looming presence of management, and work on projects or ideas that could never get anywhere in a traditional business setting.


Where are these shadows? Oh, you’d like to know, wouldn’t you? You want me to tell you the address of the coffee house, the intersection of the sewer grate . . . what do I look like, some sort of stool pigeon or something?


They operate outside the rules, outside the established norms that keep society orderly, clean and pressed. These rebels! Do they not understand that rules, order and convention keep America from becoming no better than Baghdad? Or Cleveland?


Well. Now I’m suspicious of everything.


“D.F.! We came up with a great idea for the project! Triangle holes, D.F.! Triangle!


“Oh, sure you did. And where did you think of this? Were you in your office at the time?”


“Why do you ask me that, D.F.? I mean, of course I was in my office. Where else would I have been?”


“I don’t know, maybe THE LIBRARY???”


See? This is making me paranoid.


But it’s catching on. At one company, I’m told, a skunkworks group thought it was on to something cool – until it found out there were at least 100 other skunkworks groups at the same company. Don’t you hate it when you break in to the abandoned warehouse with your laptop and your flip chart, only to find that everyone else in your company is already there? And they’re all drinking Starbuck’s coffee, which makes you wonder just how edgy this can really be.


Like every idea that is even the slightest bit worthwhile, you can be sure it’s just a matter of time before this one becomes corporatized. First, it will start turning up as a topic in CEO Roundtables. The shocked CEOs will slowly get over the heartbreak of realizing their employees would rather do their thinking without the boss’s involvement. Then it will become cool to accept skunkworks groups.


The problem for CEOs, however, is that they’re not supposed to have anything to do with these groups. They’re not even supposed to know about them. Before long, they will become frustrated with the realization that the “environment encouraging creativity” that they always talk about is actually happening without them.


We can’t have that. So pretty soon, we’ll start to see management-sponsored skunkworks groups. Professional meeting planners will be employed to send the groups on junkets to Vegas. Economic Club speakers will claim that their executive management teams were the first in the nation to embrace skunkworks as a vital tool for developing – you knew this was coming – solutions.


And the whole thing will be ruined. Soon, edgy, independent-minded employees will develop anti-skunkworks movements in an attempt to free themselves from the shackles of management. The whole thing never had a chance, but I suppose it will be fun while it lasts. And now I have to figure out what to put in these triangle holes.


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