skunk works canvas

Skunk Works Canvas – Innovation for Enterprise

How do you bring startup innovation speed to established businesses and enterprises? The answer, The Skunk Works Canvas.

The name ‘Skunk Works’ was first used to enable rapid innovation and development at Lockheed Martin in the late 1930s. Wikipedia describes a Skunk Works project as:

used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, with the task of working on advanced or secret projects.”

However, today’s Skunk Work project is likely to be as much about brand and market positioning as it is about research and technical development. And, for a Skunk Works project to be successful it needs some founding principles to both guide and limit the project.

Solving these 6 big challenges are the key to making innovation work at your organisation.

Skunk Works Canvas


1. Sandbox

In the Startup world, we live by the mantra of ‘move fast, break stuff’.

To a large degree, this has been updated to ‘move fast, break stuff, mop up‘ – where the expectation is that bare minimum MVPs (minimum viable products) are withdrawn quickly and any mistakes are acknowledged and resolved fast.

However, the ‘break stuff’ behaviour which comes with startup mindsets can potentially cause huge damage in an established business or with an established brand – and no amount of ‘mopping up’ will assuage existing customers and stakeholders who are feel the effect of a ‘move fast, break stuff’ attitude.

Hence, even with a mop, we still need a Sandbox!

A Sandbox is a self-contained space (ie it has walls and boundaries) where the startup experiment can take place.

Typically, it is under a new brand name or a division placed at arm’s length from the main operation.

The sandboxed brand or division needs to know what it can and cannot do – for example, can it have access to the existing business’ customers? Or not?

If yes, how are the introductions to be made in a way that is both compliant and also protects the businesses?

Remember: once the boundaries of the sandbox are set – anything is allowed!

A deliberate ‘recruitment’ approach means that your existing customers’ expectations are carefully managed whilst allowing the original brand to gain kudos for seeking to develop and improve products and services.

But who is going to run this?

2. Leader

Who is your startup leader?

Who is, not just in charge, in a corporate responsibility kind of way, but actually emotionally bought into the project? Who is going to go to bed thinking about this project and wake up with solutions and options and possibilities?

Or, let’s put in another way, who stands up and presents the results / outcomes / successes / failures and learnings to the rest of the business?

That person is the leader – for they have the greatest amount of skin in the game!

And, while we are thinking about presentation – make sure it is a weekly presentation – and never monthly!

A month in a Skunk Project is a very long time – too much will have happened, so make it weekly, on a formal basis. And, more often informally if that makes sense too.

Oh. And the leader owns the deadline too. You do have a deadline, don’t you?

3. Team

Next, who is in the team?

For this, you’ll need to be able to draw on existing resources within the existing business as well as the desire to build a separate team – often based on freelancers or outside contractors.

Often, people working for the main brand will struggle to release time for the new project. This will require firstly quick recognition and secondly resolution by either moving the existing brand team member to the Skunk team or bringing in outside resource.

The project must – yes, I do mean must – resolve this time / resource issue very quickly – or the corporate cogs will quickly eat up the inventive potential of the new brand / new product / service.

A Skunk Works project team will always consist of both technical and marketing (sales) people as well as other specialist.

The ability of people from different disciplines to work in a highly interactive and collaborative fashion will be a critical factor in determining the success of your project.

And in many ways, is similar to the team challenges of successful Growth Hacking.

4. Pain and Price

Like all startups, a new service needs to resolve a pain (rather than offer an incremental gain) if it is to gain sufficient traction fast enough to stand on its own two feet.

If you notice ‘incremental improvement’ then this is the time to close the Skunk project and wrap the improvements and learnings into the existing offering. This approach can yield good results for the corporate owner.

However, to remain in the bordered sandbox the skunk project needs to iterate until it is able to identify the customer pain and the potential price that they will pay to remove that pain.

The combination of ‘what pain’ and ‘what price’ should be two questions to start each and every Skunk project review.

5. Define the existing brand / proposition boundaries

Our existing brands are often treated as fixed, harden pieces of architecture. Instead, they are always in motion – even if , at times, the motion is very slight.

When a new challenge arrives for an established brand, this typically stimulates one of two responses – either, bury heads in the sand and ignore it – or, start to copy and adapt to the new brand.

The process of running a Skunk project will lead existing brands or products to question their focus and brand offering / proposition.

Often, this is a good thing – especially at the beginning of a project, as brand typically drifts unless someone senior is tasked with constantly questioning and updating that brand.

However, as your Skunk project gets up and running – it is important to ask the existing brand / product to clarify what it stands for and its objectives and then hold its ground.

Do this to allow the new Skunk project brand to develop alongside the existing brand and build a mutually beneficial relationship between two different parts of a business.

Equally, failure to address the ‘brand leakage issue’ will lead to a weaken of boundaries and potential conflict between the existing and the Skunk Project teams.

Hence, just as the Skunk Project beings bounded in a sandbox, so too the existing brands will need to establish and accept boundaries.

6. Growth hacking

And finally, you need startup style growth – in users, prospects or customers – depending on how you choose to define your Skunk project.

The use of a scorecard is key to successful growth hacking and I’ve written about how to build your growth hacking project here…

However, a crucial differential between startups and enterprise / corporates – is how those businesses make their customers ‘feel’.

In the early days of any startup – a few raving fans is far more important than a quantity.

So, build your Skunk Works Project for 1 or 2 or 3 people / customers who will *love* what you do…

…where they love the personal attention they get and love the experience of being part of something exciting and ground breaking.

Only when you have your first three ‘ravers’ should you then reach for the accelerator!