Skunkworks? A Solution for Community Building?

Community building involves working with a variety of government departments, non-profit organizations, and businesses. Over the years I’ve learned all three typically have a lot in common.

For example, by most standards they are successful and have leaders who are smart and pretty good at doing what they do. They also acknowledge we’re living in a world undergoing fundamental, rapid, and long term change driven in large part by unprecedented growth in technology.

The thing is that while they know they need to be more nimble and innovative, they are often seeking solutions that haven’t yet been invented. What’s also getting clearer is while our traditional organizational structures may have worked for the industrial era, they are ill-equipped to respond to what is now being termed as the connections economy. So while existing structures may be conducive to managing efficient operations, the silos within larger organizations and government bureaucracies are making it more and more of a challenge to be effective. It is especially crippling for working on complex community issues that require collaboration and collective impact. Technology creates challenges as well because, by its very nature, it needs to surround and support the core work of a business or organization, as well as serve as a window to external stakeholders.

This growing dilemma is more apparent if you think about it in terms of government. We have ministries or departments for health, social services, education, agriculture, housing, recreation, and so on. There are also separate departments and websites for agencies, boards, commissions, and other internal services.

Each ministry or department has a specific mandate and priorities.

Prior to the digital era, the system wasn’t perfect but it generally worked. Today is a different matter altogether because government must interact with individual stakeholders via the Internet. The challenge is that each ministry or department is doing their own thing in a way that best serves their particular mandate. What’s best for the broader organization or the people they serve is not always the main consideration. That means when people like you and I go online to interact with government or large organizations we too often find a digital footprint that is fragmented and disjointed.

So, what’s the answer?
One solution is the establishment of a small and nimble division reporting directly to senior level executives that exists on the fringe or at arm’s length of the existing organizational structure.

Typically this division’s mandate would focus on working in an unconventional way to create, pilot, and evaluate innovative solutions that address stakeholder needs. When a small group within a large organization is given a high degree of autonomy unhampered by bureaucracy, refers to it as a “skunkworks”.

The term skunkworks was first introduced during World War II by engineers at Lockheed Corporation who were tasked with building a fighter jet for the United States Government and operated under an unconventional organizational approach. Although there was speculation that the name was inspired by the poor hygiene habits of overworked employees, the name Skunkworks was really taken from the illegal moonshine factory in “L’il Abner” cartoons.

Of course, the idea of a skunkworks will be cringe-inducing for many traditional leaders within hierarchical settings. The idea of shifting and sharing control and power will be both new and threatening to many as those who have power typically aren’t always keen to give it up. As a result, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that today’s challenges and opportunities are new and therefore can’t be solved with the old infrastructure.

For sure it will be a risk but with risk comes the potential for innovative solutions and the leadership we need to ensure stronger, healthier, safer, and more vibrant communities.

Posted on 06-02-17

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