I came across this wonderful word in a Wired article on the almost-accidental history of the development of the unmanned military drone aircraft.
A skunkworks project is “an especially enriched environment that is intended to help a small group of individuals design a new idea by escaping routine organizational procedures. The research and development (R&D) workers in a skunkworks are usually specially selected, given special resources, and work on a crash basis to create an innovation.”
So the Manhattan Project was a skunkworks; so was Steve Jobs’ elite team commissioned with designing the Macintosh. “On a crash basis” apparently means in a more intense and urgent manner than usual work: it’s a team run hot, on deadline, with all the unique limits and affordances that kind of environment creates.
Big Safari, the entity responsible for the game changing innovation of the Predator drone, had three characteristics that seem important for folks interested in how productive disruption happens, like me and, I imagine, you. (All quotes from the Wired piece.)
1. They built on existing resources by using readily-available market electronics and piggybacking on existing communications systems.
We generally didn’t do anything from scratch,” says retired colonel Bill Grimes, Big Safari’s director from 1985 to 2002. “We took existing hardware that was maybe for one purpose and adapted it to a completely different one for our needs.” Like at a tech startup, Big Safari’s teams were small and horizontal. Expediency, agility, and thrift were essential. “The most important thing was to get something useful to the war fighter quickly,” Grimes says.
I am struck by how frequently we feel that only new stuff can address big problems. Frequently, the solution lies in seeing how to use what is already at hand in a new way. This means not turning up your nose at ideas, materials, or structures that either seem beneath the scope of your vision or too old and unsexy to be worth including. Some people might laugh at you for apparently remaining stuck in the old way of doing things. That doesn’t matter: if the solution lies in using old tech in new ways, the last laugh will be yours when your innovative ways of using it beat others to the punch, with way lower opportunity costs.
2. Big Safari believed in the 80 percent solution.
Ordinarily, before a modified military aircraft is dispatched into combat, it has to pass through a lengthy vetting process that can take years. But Big Safari liked to deploy its creations before they were fully polished. The team referred to this as “the 80 percent solution” (because sometimes the last 20 percent of a job takes the longest). It was like releasing the beta version of a piece of software, says Brian Raduenz, then the commander of Big Safari’s Predator detachment. “We would need to get it out there, get it into the hands of the guys doing the job, and then pay close attention to what they had to say about how it was working.”
From where I sit, the last 20% is often where everyone gets to feel safe and insured that the outcome will either be successful, or that they will be professionally insulated from the repercussions of failure. It’s CYA time.
But “fail big, and fail often” remains the way change happens, and there’s no time to CYA in that moment. It requires a willingness to be vulnerable and remain deeply teachable by the outcomes of your first assay. If you have good bones under your project, believe that the production values will work themselves out when there’s time and resources devote to them. If your IP is solid, then go to market with a beta. Note how this raises the stakes of first deployment – which focuses the mind marvelously on learning from what doesn’t work. Also note how it sets you up to be first in a crowded space with a solution. It’s how you actually become a game changer: a mix of imagination, solid design, and audacity that gets you results – and feedback on what to do next – that no one else can even wave at. The willingness to be vulnerable and seem dumb goes hand in hand with the potential to really make a quantum leap forward.
3. Big Safari identified and cultivated their allies, then deliberately circled up with them rather than with those who sought to undermine them.
On the first day of what would become a two-day meeting, he noticed that some of the engineers were laughing at the proposition of mounting a missile on a motorized glider. “We identified those who were leaning forward, who felt like this could be done, and I privately got ahold of them and invited them the next day,” he says. “The remainder were totally unaware of the second meeting.”
I fervently talk about change as a solo endeavor, but it really is not: we need allies, people who have more faith in our potential and best intentions than doubt in our capacity to do what we are setting out to do. Who are these people, really? We need to figure it out and cultivate their connection. In my career, I have frequently been one of the “lean in” people my clients come to depend upon, for a time: they make me as someone with their best interest at heart, initially because of the money I am costing them but eventually for deeper reasons. This insight reminds me how important it is for those seeking to make a change in their lives to seek out allies in their real world settings, as well It reminds me how accountability, and consistency, and making change stick, goes much better when you surround yourself with like-minded people, or at least decrease your interface with those who would undermine your efforts toward your goals.
I need to note how Big Safari’s insights mirror my own work:
- Some of the insights I bring don’t seem new or sexy. That doesn’t mean they don’t work, and they are discarded at the client’s peril.
- Willingness to try new things, before they are polished, in public is a huge part of making change happen. That requires vulnerability: commitment to doing something new in order to get a different result.
- Our allies are an essential part of our change. Or really: as we grow up our perceptions of those around us, we may come to learn that those we perceive as enemies are actually just people who see the world through different lenses than we do. If we can learn how to codeswitch, we may find allies where before we found only adversaries.
I’m sure I’m not the first to see the Big Safari principles as part of a generational shift. Its insights make more sense to the emerging group of innovators than those of my vintage, or even my kids’. We are still deeply stewed in the idea that respecting traditional lines of command (and control) is the way to get ahead; that CYA is the path to longevity at a company, respect, and security.
Those two gens behind me have been raised in a world where all those promises have been broken, and their heroes are dropouts and disruptors who have redefined the tech limits of what can be done in garages and hoodies. “Gig economy” workers got there because the stable, tenured, upwardly-mobile world proved to be an illusion. This shift cheated them of stability and predictability, but it also freed them up to do work we could never have imagined in its audacity and paradigm-shifting power. Like so many cataclysmic changes, what seemed initially to be a loss was also opportunity.
So this way of talking about change is a way better fit for the younger folks than the C-level silverbacks with whom I made my bones. I spend so much energy trying to convince the older guard that my audacious and terrifying ideas will work. The younger folks see the potential right away: there’s so much energy saved by just turning focus to making things happen, rather than mourning how the old ways limited and constrained and squandered us. They are infinitely pragmatic, so going with what works – even if it’s unstylish, or half-baked, or unpopular – wins on the merits every time.
Maybe we can think of it as “Millennium Falcon” change: those who are used to being chased and disrespected learn to value a technology for what’s under the hood, not how it looks.
There’s one more question the Big Safari story gets me worked up about: where’s the urgency come from to work “on a crash basis”? In war, it is clear – we are moved to accomplish things we couldn’t before because our imaginations are fired by fear, and the deadlines driven by the advancing columns of enemy.
But where do we generate that kind of motivation in the real world? More to the point: when the product is US, how do we maintain the innovation “in the field”? After all, we aren’t a finished piece of hardware turned out to see what it will do: we remake ourselves every day, according to our choices. How do we keep making the innovative choices, when the business-as-usual of the real world is, for all its pain, still more comfortable than doing something new? (The devil you know…)
My best answer is that the world will motivate us to change, eventually, because it will unfailingly deliver us the consequences of our choices. Unproductive, small, self-defeating choices will inevitably bring us pain, and that pain will eventually become more acute. We may be called upon to learn from our past mistakes: maturity is, in fact, realizing that we cannot do the same things we have done in the past and expect different results. If we are focused on changing the right things, and are honest with ourselves, we will find abundant reasons why we need to make change stick.
But at the same time, we can’t live “on a crash basis”: by definition, a sprint gives speed over a short distance, and life is a long-distance haul. Perhaps we need to bring “crash” intensity to the types of change we need to make, but then find a more sustainable level of intensity in the actual work we do with ourselves.
- We can be rigorously accountable to ourselves without making ourselves feel like the sky will fall whenever we make the wrong choice.
- We can notice small successes and accept that permanent change is a long road, and celebrate our willingness to place ourselves upon it.
- We can realize that urgency isn’t panic and fear: it’s just telling ourselves the truth, and acting accordingly. That’s a way to keep up our resolve and commitment to change over the long haul.
So: let’s learn not to be afraid to embrace solutions that are already at hand; to roll with what we have, even though it’s not ready for prime-time yet; to find our allies. Whatever our vintage, these are principles that will serve us well. And especially, let’s figure out how to bring “crash” intensity to our every day efforts to change – without actually crashing.
Image of Predator drone from U.S. Air Force, with thanks.