A standalone innovation lab is a small, independent, and loosely structured unit within a larger organization, designed to develop marketable innovations without common interference from the larger organization. It can go by other names, like skunkworks, an incubation team, or an advanced projects group.
In many organizations (and in our experience) establishing a standalone innovation lab or group can be the ideal model if an organization wants to pursue breakthrough innovation. That is, pursuing innovations that are not simple line extensions or improvements to existing products, but rather projects that help move the organization into new areas of growth.
BENEFITS OF A STANDALONE INNOVATION LAB OR GROUP
1. Protected time and space: Standalone innovation labs are designed to foster creativity and innovation. By providing a space for employees to think outside the box, these units can lead to new ideas and approaches that can drive growth and success.
2. Speed: Standalone innovation organizations are known for their ability to quickly develop and launch new products or ideas. The small and nimble structure of these units enables them to quickly respond to changing market conditions and opportunities.
3. Flexibility: The groups are often free from the constraints and bureaucratic processes of the larger organization, enabling them to make quick decisions and pivot quickly as needed.
4. Employee engagement: Empowering employees to pursue projects that are important to them, innovation organizations can help foster employee engagement and job satisfaction.
5. Risk-taking: Standalone innovation labs are often given the freedom to take risks and experiment with new ideas, even if they may not always be successful. This risk-taking culture can help drive innovation and creativity.
6. Building organizational capabilities: Without the pull of working on the organization’s core offerings, team members can hire and train specifically for innovation. Teams strengthen as skills are developed that can be used repeatedly on future innovation efforts.
One classic example of a skunkworks team is the development of the Lockheed Martin SR-71 Blackbird, a supersonic reconnaissance aircraft. The development of the SR-71 was carried out by a small, independent team within Lockheed Martin, separate from the company’s main operations.
The team was given the freedom to develop the aircraft as they saw fit, with little interference from management, so they can make quick decisions and take another path if needed. This approach led to the development of a highly innovative and advanced aircraft that was able to fly at speeds of over Mach 3 and altitudes over 80,000 feet.
The SR-71 project was a resounding success, and the aircraft remains one of the most advanced and iconic aircraft in history. The success of the project demonstrated the benefits of a skunkworks approach, including the ability to quickly develop and launch new products, and the benefits of a risk-taking culture.
The example of the SR-71 shows how a standalone innovation team can help drive innovation and creativity within an organization, leading to the development of highly innovative and successful products. By providing a space for employees to think outside the box and pursue their passions, companies can tap into new ideas and approaches that can drive success and growth.
APPLE’S MACINTOSH DEVELOPMENT TEAM
In the early 1980s, Apple was facing intense competition from IBM and its PC line of computers. In response, the company formed a small, independent team, known as the Macintosh Development Team, to develop a new type of computer that would challenge IBM’s dominance.
The team was given the freedom to work outside of the company’s traditional processes and bureaucracy, enabling them to make quick decisions and change direction. This approach led to the development of the Macintosh, which was launched in 1984 and quickly became a huge success.
The Macintosh project was a classic example of a skunkworks project, demonstrating the benefits of a small, nimble team that is free from the constraints of a larger organization. The success of the project helped to establish Apple as a leader in the personal computer market and demonstrated the benefits of a skunkworks approach, including speed, innovation, and flexibility.
These examples illustrate why so many organizations turn to establishing standalone innovation groups to drive growth beyond their core. They provide projects with the dedicated resources, time and mindset needed to truly think out of the box and break new ground.
Phillips & Co. is a leading innovation consulting firm.
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