“The whole point of this team was to do something big. Not just big, but something out of the ordinary; something exceptional …”
The above line is an excerpt from a blog post I wrote more than five years ago that is as relevant today as ever. This is particularly true for the subject matter of this column, which is a series entitled “An Entrepreneurs Life”. This column draws on my 18 years owning and operating internet businesses and examines the less talked about “lifestyle aspects” and “personal journey” components of being an entrepreneur.
Age Old Entrepreneurial Dillemma.
Rereading the post I had written many years ago reminded me of the power of the concept I was writing about. Even though this largely comes without thinking now, it was not at all automatic a few years back and my guess is there are a whole host of entrepreneurs, especially newer ones, that would benefit from gaining this skill.
First off, let me state the common problem. Almost without exception, an entrepreneurs life and journey in the early stages is anything but easy. In fact, it is exceptionally hard … and incredibly taxing … and woefully lonely at times.
For these very reasons, the seasoned entrepreneur surrounds himself with tools of motivation and/or a stocked warchest of inspirational resources to help combat the inevitable valleys one will face on their pilgrimage to the top. These can be anything from inspirational quotes, to stories of others, or just about anything that will help the entrepreneur regain perspective when doubt and/or fear start to creep in.
In this spirit, I came across an old blog post that I had written during some very difficult times in one of my start ups many years ago. I had seen a documentary one night on TV about a group named “Skunk Works” that was formed to combat the Germans in WWII.
Learning about this group gave me an instant shift in perspective from “how are we ever going to get all this done” to “we are a talented team, working through some incredibly complex issue and are about to launch incredible innovations that will be of lasting significance to our future user base.”
As the team’s leader I recognized instantly how this story could be translated and utlized as a motivational tool to help our team battle through the difficult circumstances we were in. A half hour after having seen this documentary, I had completed a short post that I’d share with my team the following day.
The goal was to get the group back focused on the importance of our project and on being motivated by the challenge of it all as opposed to overhwhelmed by the very same. The results were immediate and impactful to be sure. The simple reframing of the situation through the lens of this “Skunk Works” story first helped me see more clearly the big picture and then did the same for my team.
It’s hard to say for sure, but who knows if the project would have turned out as well, or even survived for that matter, if not for this shift in perspective.
Whatever the answer is, one thing I know for sure is that being on the lookout for and then stockpiling these sorts of “motivational bites” can be one of the determining factors for achieving success vs. arriving at failure both as an individual and for your team alike.
Entrepreneurial Perspective & Skunkworks
When Germany’s first jet fighter planes started to appear in the skies over Europe in 1943, the U.S. War Department called upon Lockheed Aircraft to build a working jet fighter plane prototype and asked for it to be ready in a mere 180 days. Lockheed accepted this unimaginable challenge and to best ensure successful execution it formed a stealth group nicknamed “The Skunk Works“.
To foster creativity and weed out the homogenized corporate thinking prevalent of the day, this new elite group was limited in team size, discouraged normal working procedures, took on very few projects, and relentlessly pursued a higher standard while at the same time asked to work on a limited budget. The whole point of this team was to do something big. Not just big, but something out of the ordinary; something exceptional.
Over the years, the term Skunk Works has come to refer to any effort involving an elite special team that breaks away from the larger organization to work autonomously on an advanced or secret project, usually tasked with breakthrough innovation on limited budgets and under aggressive timelines.
The term has become official, and is defined in the 4th edition of The American Heritage Dictionary as “an often secret experimental laboratory or facility for producing innovative products.” It’s guiding principles are straightforward. First and foremost, don’t ever build something you don’t believe in. Second, even a timely wrong decision is better than no decision; and third, don’t halfheartedly wound problems–kill them dead.
Skunk Works created projects like the Blackbird. Yes, this Behemoth bird was at times hard to fly, was at first known to leak gas on the runway, and would shake pilots unconscious as it rumbled at slower speeds. But once you got the Blackbird humming, it would throttle one’s ass to Mach 3 and peel the skin off your face as it soared like a “bird” right up to the “black” edge of space at speeds rivaling that of sound.
My name is William Foote. My company is HS2Labs. We have a whole new line of products and services coming out this fall … and we like that story quite a bit.