In a recent whitepaper, we delved into the topic of innovation and execution ceilings. Innovation ceilings represent the highest reaches of our imagination, while the latter limits our creativity to our ability to produce the work.
We’ll explore these two concepts a little further in a two-part series, which compares different work strategies to increase innovation and great output. The following case study introduces the Skunk Works model – an approach that isolates a group of high-performers to focus on bringing a new concept to life.
At one point during the 20th Century, we thought we had the process for true innovation figured out.
Aerospace company Lockheed Martin ran a top-secret program called Skunk Works. The goal was to design and build a new jet fighter aircraft during World War II. It needed to fly at speeds up to 200 miles per hour faster than the company’s existing model at the time, but the U.S. government gave the company a deadline of just 180 days to develop it.
The initial problem for Lockheed Martin was its manufacturing plant – floor space was fully occupied with building its existing model to cope with the demands of the War. The only option was for the new model’s design engineers and mechanics to set up their operations in a rented circus tent away from the main plant. That tent was next to a plastics factory that emitted foul smells, and the Skunk Works moniker evolved to describe the operation.
The Lockheed Martin team succeeded in developing its new jet fighter in just 143 days, well ahead of schedule. The success encouraged the company to continue this separate approach for the design and development of its new innovations. It even trademarked the Skunk Works name.
However, the Skunk Works approach can have its limitations. Consider a later, less successful experience of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works operation.
By 1956, Lockheed Martin and the U.S. government were looking to innovate further. They wanted to develop a spy plane that was powered by liquid hydrogen – therefore, they needed to build a hydrogen-fuelled engine. The top-secret project involving the CIA was named “Suntan,” and the organization promised to have a prototype ready within 18 months.
There were no known applications of liquid hydrogen at the time. It is a highly flammable substance, so there were legitimate safety concerns about how it could be effectively stored and used to fuel an aircraft. It requires special refrigeration and expert handling. Because of its earlier success, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works team began work on the “Suntan” project.
However, they had some competition. The Cold War that began after World War II was in full swing in the 1950s. A brilliant Russian scientist who had been imprisoned after World War II by Stalin for refusing to work on an atomic bomb had been released, and he was an expert on liquid hydrogen. He too began working with a team in Russia to develop the world’s first hydrogen-fuelled engine.
While attempting to build its prototype, it became apparent to the Skunk Works team that the engine would only have the capacity to fly for 2,000 miles without re-fuelling. To reach Russia for its intended use as a spy plane, it would need to regularly re-fuel at strategically-placed land bases in Europe and Asia. These bases would need the ability to safely store the highly flammable liquid hydrogen.
The logistics of organizing re-fuels were extremely costly and problematic, especially for a highly secretive operation like a jet fighter mission. Leaders of the “Suntan” project eventually met with the Pentagon in mid-1957 and advised that the project be officially cancelled, which it was not long afterwards.
However, within months of the cancellation, the Russians successfully launched the world’s first hydrogen-fuelled satellite (the Sputnik 1) into orbit. Sputnik 1 completed 1,440 orbits of the Earth in 21 days, before safely burning up when it inevitably ran out of fuel and re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere.
This innovation demonstrated the Soviet Union’s technological capacity and its ability to gather military intelligence information. The development triggered the Space Race as the next frontier in the Cold War, with both the Soviet Union and the U.S. ramping up their spaceflight and satellite navigation development efforts.
So why did the Russian liquid hydrogen engine project succeed while “Suntan” failed?
It’s arguable that Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works approach saddled it with execution concerns, as opposed to just having the freedom to explore and develop innovative ideas for the potential use of a liquid hydrogen-fuelled engine. These execution concerns potentially limited creative thinking.
The members of the Skunk Works team were more concerned with the execution logistics of re-fuelling a spy airplane on Earth. Unlike the Russians, they failed to see the potential for an alternative liquid hydrogen-powered satellite that could be built for a similar military intelligence purpose.