Seems like every so often we need to re-discover some old ideas. For example, we are re-fighting all the battles from the 1980’s over science and technology policy and funding. Now, it seems that business (or at least the business press) has re-discovered a key element in our innovation-system: the skunkworks (or to use the more dignified term, the “innovation lab”). Here is Business Week’s latest praise of skunkworks – “Mosh Pits” Of Creativity:
The Razr, Motorola’s (MOT ) half-inch-thick, ultralight cell phone, broke a few rules in the industry when it appeared late last year. It’s impossibly compact, simple to operate, and elegant, with an artfully hidden antenna and impressive photographic capabilities. The phone marked a sleek detour from the drive toward bulky features, such as powerful storage devices and high-power cameras, that were fattening up phones and preoccupying rival cell-phone makers. No wonder the Razr has sold a breathtaking 12.5 million units in less than a year.
But Motorola also had to break some internal rules to get the Razr to market. The biggest: Much of the critical work on the phone was done at a downtown Chicago innovation lab known as Moto City — rather than solely in the company’s sprawling traditional research and development facility in suburban Libertyville, Ill. Decorated in a trendy palette of oranges and grays, Moto City fills the 26th floor of a high-rise once occupied by a dot-com.
To hustle the phone into production, Motorola engineers left their cubicles in Libertyville to team up with designers and marketers 50 miles to the southeast in Moto City. With its open spaces and waist-high cubicles for even senior managers, the lab fostered teamwork and a breaking down of barriers — both of which contributed to the success of the project. Razr developers, for instance, bypassed a normal process of running new-product ideas past regional managers across the world. Because they wanted to lead the market, not just give managers and customers what they thought they wanted, the Razr team put aside normal practices. “We did not want to be distracted by the normal inputs we get,” says Gary R. Weiss, senior director of mechanical engineering. “It would not have allowed us to be as innovative.”
Innovation labs are a key part of a movement to overhaul old-style R&D. They are designed to complement, and sometimes even replace, the intensive traditional system — which required that scientists or engineers toil away privately for years in the pursuit of patents, then hand their work over to product developers, who in turn dropped it onto designers’ and marketers’ laps for eventual shipment out to the public. The leisurely old handoff approach worked fine a few decades ago, when the likes of Bell Labs and RCA Laboratories could take years to develop transistors and color TVs, knowing they would enjoy protected markets for years more. But today’s rapacious competition means innovations grow stale fast. Companies must churn out updates far more quickly. Already, Motorola has unleashed follow-on phones, such as the candy-bar style Slvr and the rounded, pert-looking Pebl, along with a bevy of novel colors, such as hot pink, for the flip-top Razr.
Since Lockheed’s Skunk Works started in the 1940’s, I find it amusing to see the concept now touted as a radical break from past decades. In any truly innovative company, the old over-the-transom method of product development (scientist to product development engineer to designer to marketing) went the way of the dinosaur many years ago. (In fairness to the author, the piece does discuss other companies who use the innovation lab model and the difficulties these labs face.)
But, as the article illustrates, this old version of the innovation process remains fixed in our minds. No where is that more evident that in Washington. Our entire so-called innovation policy is built upon that pipeline model. Our debates are over how to create more inputs to that pipeline: increasing the number of scientist and engineers; improving math and science test scores; and, expanding funding for science.
What about the other parts of the system — the designers, the product developers, the marketers? Not only are they completely left out of the process by this policy myopia, their contributions are downplayed (such as in the statements that the study of arts and crafts is useless to production and should be replaced by more science). Wrong! We need those folks who studied glass-blowing as well as those who studied differential equations. They all bring important skills to the process.
And what about the system as well? With policy focused on pushing more input into a pipeline that doesn’t even work that way anymore, we are completely neglecting how the system really works. We need a policy that focuses on how the system works and how to improve the interaction among the various parts. There is a big push for funding of science and engineering students. How about support for students at the new Stanford Institute of Design? Or how about a program similar to the old Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) to replicate the Stanford model (and other variations)?
As long as our vision of innovation remains stuck in the industrial era model of the pipeline, we will continue, every few years, to re-invent to wheel — of in this case, to re-discover the skunkworks.