Do “skunkworks” create corporate silos?

Post Blog Silos

I just read an interesting article by John Winsor, a contributor to Forbes.com.  The title of the article is

Don’t Put The Word ‘Innovation’ On Business Cards.

Here’s the link to the article.

SUMMARY:

The idea of the article - as I understand it - is that innovation 
centers, special innovation units, or skunk works creates a silo in a
company's culture. It's unfavorable because it breeds demotivation, 
and could create serious brain-drain if the company hits hard times
and the unit is disbanded or scaled back or if someone leaves the 
company. Instead, embed innovation throughout the entire company; 
don't isolate it.

MY COMMENTS ON MR. WINSORS’ ARTICLE:

While isolation and silo-type of culture could develop as a result of having an innovation special unit, it’s not a direct correlation. If it is happening, more likely it is a red flag that the innovation program is not working correctly.

Let me create an analogy between an innovation special unit and the Navy Seals. Both are agile groups that focus in on missions that are too tough for others to complete. Maybe others have tried and failed or no wants to try. These SEALS carry out their assigned missions and in the process, develop special operational strategy and tactics. Over time, these proven strategies and tactics can be systematized and processes can be developed for use throughout the organization. The SEALS take on the toughest problems and they encounter obstacles that develop and test their stamina, leadership and ability to work as a team.
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Tinkering is good; but it is not necessarily innovation

blogTinkering

Bruce Kasanoff (from Opportunity Shaper, Now Possible) just wrote a blog article called, “Why Tinkering Around is the Key to Success” It’s on linkedin.

He starts the article this way,

"Here is a quick way to judge whether your company will continue 
to be successful: can you tell your CEO that you spent the morning 
tinkering around with an idea? If the answer is yes, you are in 
good shape. If no, start looking for another job.

Successful companies know that the path to innovation isn't 
a straight line. Profitable growth is a messy, roller-coaster 
process that involves almost as many setbacks as victories. 
If you succeed in everything you do, you aren't aiming nearly 
high enough.

I get frustrated when companies talk and talk and talk about 
innovation, while simultaneously making it nearly impossible 
for their employees to tinker around. Tinkering is what drives 
innovation, not talking."

There is much that I agree with in Bruce Kasanoff’s article, but there are some big disagreements as well. In the spirit of lively conversation, here are my comments:

Bruce Kasanoff, you are correct. There are a few reasons why tinkering is so valuable: (1). You allow your brain to enter another state of being – it’s not linear, driven, goal-oriented. If you learn to recognize that “creative/tinkering” brain-state then you can enter it more easily and on-demand. The ability to move into and out of states-of-being is very valuable for serial innovators. You need to learn to develop that skill if you want to innovate reliably. (2). Developing your persistence ‘muscle’ is also vital to innovators because innovation generally takes effort and you cannot cave-in at the first obstacle. There are lots of reasons why innovators need to persist. It is a basic characteristic of great serial innovators.
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Innovation can be mapped to any culture

Innovation can happen anywhere

I just read a blog by Pearl Zhu at at her blog . She says

Maintaining a culture of innovation in an ongoing and sustainable way requires: Openness because innovation comes from a combination of need and culture of being open to new things; and Playfulness  because innovation comes from the environment in which thinking & experimenting is stimulated, and Adaptability because innovation is the collective capability to adapt to changes and Adaptability is key; and Flexibility because healthy process for innovation goes between flexibility and hard process; and finally, Agility because innovation efforts work best when focused through fast, rapid cycles to shape and test solutions.

Here is my response to this list:

I like what Ms. Zhu says about “innovation involves the collective capability to adapt to changes – adaptability is key.” The ability to continuously assess the situation is vital. Persistence, resilience, courage: these are all important characteristics. Also, cross-pollination is critical.

But I have to argue quite strenuously with several ideas.
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Serial Innovators – what type of person are they?

Rear Admiral "Amazing" Grace Hopper

Contrary to popular belief, genius innovators are not one particular type of personality. If you want a clear example of this, compare Thomas Alva Edison and Nickola Tesla!  In fact, innovative people come in all personality types. And I’ll even go one step further.

Innovation can happen within any environment. You don’t need to have a specific type of culture, space, support, management, local, proximity to, or anything outside of yourself to invent repeatedly.
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