Russ Unger is an Experience Design leader in the Chicago area, focusing on all aspects of user experience design and research. He is currently an Experience Design Director at 18F. He was previously at Happy Cog. Russ is co-author of A Project Guide to UX Design and Guerrilla UX Research Methods : Thrifty, Fast, and Effective User Experience Research Techniques, with Todd Zaki Warfel.
IA Summit 2015 Main Conference Talk
Topic(s): design thinking and lean
We’ve all worked at places where there’s never enough time to make sure that things are operationally done the “right way”—bills need to get paid, client or product/project work needs to get done and takes priority, and hey, everyone deserves to have a life, too. There is light at the end of this tunnel! Several companies, including Atari, Ford, Microsoft and Google, have pulled off some great things by taking advantage of skunkworks teams and projects. I’ve been fortunate enough to see some successes with those teams and projects, as well, and will share them so you can see how to apply the approach(es) to your own practice.
Way back in the 1940s, Kelly Johnson and his team of mighty skunks used their Skunkworks process to design—and build—a prototype jet fighter in 143 days. Kelly established 14 Rules and Practices for Skunkworks projects in order to help articulate the most effective way for his team to be successful in the projects that they worked on. Not only can we learn from Kelly’s rules and adapt them to our current methods of working, we can also create our own skunkworks teams and projects to ensure that the Cobbler’s kids—the operational areas of our design practices—get some shoes put on their feet. And the results might just smell pretty good, if you’re patient enough.
- What is this Skunkworks thing you mentioned?
- What are Kelly Johnson’s Skunkworks Rules and how can I apply them to my design practice?
- What have other companies done that are considered skunkworks and how were they successful?
- How can skunkworks be used in our current work practices?
- How can skunkworks be used to help accomplish the ever-growing stack of non-priority (yet still very important) projects that are important to me and my team?
Russ Unger: Skunk Works. I came about this because many years ago, I got into these leadership positions where I had to figure out how to be a leader and be a billable person. I feel like I should pose for you. Does anybody have that issue where you’re the manager, you’ve got a whole bunch of people reporting to you, and you’re supposed to work on projects?
It’s the best, right? It’s the best. You sleep really well at night, and you only work 40 hours a week. Yeah, I was a hot mess of FUBAR when I was trying to pull this off the first couple of times. I was trying to figure out how to be a manager and be somebody who is on projects, billable.
Now, a bunch of years after the fact, I see that I was kind of a martyr. Definitely, I was a giant idiot. I can tell by some of the…yeah, none of you are surprised that I was an idiot. It’s OK. But it’s really hard when you’re learning to be a leader and somebody tells you you’ve got to be utilized, you’ve got to be close to a hundred percent. All this other stuff you’re going to do as a manager is on your own time.
I’ve got friends that are going through it now. In fact, it’s really messy. These cubicles remind me an awful lot of something else that happened in our history. This digital work starts to make you feel like you’re in a factory again. You’re doing this thing.
Here we go. I’m being billable. I’m being billable. I’m being billable. I should go home. I’ve got to figure out how to manage people, how to give them time off, how to hire somebody, how to, heaven forbid, let someone go. In this day and age, everybody’s watching, so people know if you’re billable or not. That’s scary. That’s petrifying.
Fear, by the way, is a fantastic motivator. For people like me, I gain weight, I lose hair. That has nothing to do with my age. Frankly, it just sucks that you have to donate your time to doing a job that you’re supposed to be able to do. I’m somebody who is eager for approval. I like it if you all like me. That made me a really, really easy mark.
In fact, I’ve just made a lot of mistakes, friends. In those days, I said I was highly billable, very close to a hundred percent. I remember this manager saying that to me, and all I thought was, “Wow, what the…? What am I doing here? This is horrible.” As I’m walking through all of this and being billable, I remember I felt like, maybe this.
Singer: Beat the rest.
The best in the nation.
Russ: Doing all of the work. Just bouncing along and trying to further myself for the better. Keep the beat.
Singer: I stake.
Russ: Worry about Russ’ love.
Singer: I make.
My vocation. My vocation.
Russ: Sometimes it’s just too much, so I do what we all do.
Russ: I lost my crap. I flamed out. What’s really great about this video is if you look, there’s somebody all too happy to come and fill in that chair, which is the case in most places. If you don’t want to take on the added responsibility of escalating your career sometimes, you can be put in those situations. That’s just not a lot of fun.
To be completely fair, by the way, I’m a whiner. I’m a crybaby. These were all things I could have said no to. It was my own damn fault. To quote my friend Gabby, she says, “Never do a shitty job well.”
Russ: That’s Gabby Han. If you don’t know who she is, believe me, she’s right. I did a shitty job really, really well. A plus work. I felt like I didn’t have any idea how to lead. I definitely had no idea how to bring a design practice into being. I was short on mentors. I never felt like I was a level of leadership where I could make decisions or have control.
I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to do this again. I found out that there are actually places who don’t operate like this. I can say no, I found my no, it’s cute when you do.
My friend Matthew pointed me to somebody who I learned to love a lot, John Boyd. When you’re trying to right size yourself, John Boyd’s OODA loops are fantastic. Observe, orient, decide, and act.
It can be a little tactical, and I got really into this mantra. That was what I said. I’ve still got a Post-It note on my computer. Observe, orient, decide, act. I use this all the time. Matthew said to me, “If you like Boyd, you’re going to love Kelly Johnson,” and everything started to change for me.
Kelly Johnson, he was this aeronautical innovator, which if you know anything about Boyd, kind of makes sense. He was a systems engineer, and he worked on a lot of airplanes, including this bad monster, the first production aircraft to exceed Mach 3. Worked on the first fight that was capable of Mach 2. He was pretty badass.
Then, he worked on this thing called the XP-80. What’s really important about this, it was in 1943, and the Army was struggling. The air tactical service command was having a hard time beating the Germans. The Germans had faster planes, and they needed something done quickly or they were afraid they were going to lose the war.
Kelly grabbed a bunch of these elite engineers and these shop mechanics, and he put them to work. They built this large circus tent, and they put it behind this plastics factory. They were told that they had 150 days to deliver a prototype jet fighter capable of enabling pilots to beat the Germans. That’s not much time to build a thing that can fly and shoot bullets.
They delivered in 143 days. This was called the XP-80 Lulu Belle. This plane flew over 600 miles an hour. He became known as this organizational genius. He could deliver impossible results in impossible time frames. He broke all of these rules. He decided that people telling him he needed to do more with less wasn’t always the right thing to do.
In fact, he was the ultimate crap umbrella for his team. He knew certain processes and policies would hold his team back. I think we all are very much aware of those. In fact, the contract for the XP-80 didn’t even arrive until four months into the build. If they had waited this long, this thing would have never happened.
This tent that they built and they worked in, in fact, he told his team, I believe, they were going to work 6 days a week, 12 hours a day for the determinable future to get this thing built. They put this tent up behind this stinky plastics factory, and that’s how they became known as Skunk Works.
Kelly created these 14 rules and practices for his team to be able to get things done, and they were all based on his motto, which was, “Be quick, be quiet, and be on time.” Think about that. They were hidden in a tent. They were not seen. People couldn’t really do anything. They beat the hell out of their deadline.
He created these 14 rules and practices. I’m not going to read them all to you. The 15th one was, “Starve before doing business with the damn Navy. They don’t know what the hell they want. It will drive you up a wall before they break either your heart or a more exposed part of your anatomy.”
Russ: It’s a very important rule. What I did is I looked at these rules, and I’m like, “Wow, these are really great ways to drive forward-thinking stuff.” If anybody wants to say that word, I think it’s on Olivia’s bingo card. It was interesting. These worked really well for engineering. Engineering, they solve something based on knowing the problem.
Design’s a little bit different, so these rules don’t exactly apply to us. In fact, design, we have to understand a problem and a solution. We do that by creating something and testing it. Can’t do that with airplanes. I took these 14 rules, and I tore them apart a bit and said, “Which ones of these could we apply to what we do as designers?”
I came up with eight different ones. Most importantly was number eight, which maps to his one rule about the damn Navy, which is, “Don’t do work for people who are unappreciative of nor do they value the design process.” Important to map that. These will be online. This is only a 20-minute presentation. Not that I’m making excuses. We just won’t have them.
What I’ve uncovered, and I’m just getting into this quite a bit, is I found three different types of design Skunk Works projects. If you know of more, tell me. This could be a longer, better presentation, and I’d love to hear more of what people are doing. Somebody mentioned to me the Google designs sprints, and they may work into here in the future.
The first one I uncovered were hackathons. These are intensely collaborative projects. We’re all aware of hackathons, right? You get a bunch of people together for two to three days, 24 hours, a weekend, a week, whatever it is. Cut them loose to create with a goal in mind. One of the reasons that they work so well is that all the formal, business-like management crap is out of the way.
If you think about it, managers disappear and let people go do their thing. I don’t know the managers actually realize they’re doing that. I don’t think they realize that, “Wow, we’re letting people go do this stuff. We’re not here.” I think they’re thinking, “Wow, what a benefit.” I think all of these teams are going, “We can form, and norm, and storm, and create really cool stuff.”
Given that and how we apply these to how we work as designers, I created new-hire hackathons. When people join my team, two to three people, one to two people, we’ll create projects. I’ve got a listing of things that are quick hits. Something like we need in a project list. We need a pattern library, or we need method cards for shared language, or we want to map our process.
I write up cards that talk about the fit, talk about what the project’s going to be. Really high-level objectives. Expected and estimated timelines. Give a team size, create these cards, prioritize them, then assign them. Then, the most important thing, get the hell out of the way. Give these to people. Two to three people can work on a project for a couple of weeks.
When people join a company—at least companies that I’ve not figured out on-boarding for — they don’t have anything to do for those first couple of weeks. They’re doing paperwork. They are learning people’s names. They are figuring out where the restrooms are, or they’re just dinking around on slack. Again, maybe that’s just me.
When you put them to work on these things, you find that you get a bunch of things taken care of that you would have not gotten taken care of in the past. We’re working on method cards now so we can have shared language across project teams. What do product people think? What do designers think?
What are these phrases and words that we’re using so that everybody understands what a journey map is or what a heuristic analysis or evaluation is? This allows us to see, when people are going through these, who’s leading, how they work, things that we are not communicating very well. There’s all kinds of benefits from seeing that.
The next type of hackathon project are labs. I love labs, because there’s some really great examples. Labs are like secret locations. Not going to say the name of the company in California that creates phones and watches. They treat a lot of their projects this way. When companies start to get large, in the small/medium business stage, they get too big for people to know each other.
I think Dunbar’s number is 150 human relation that you can remember, human relationships. Labs allow people to get away from that. Anybody remember Atari, the best, coolest company of my childhood? They had a facility in a World War II era hospital. It was about two and a half hours away from where their main officers were.
They put a bunch of engineers there who they found were unhappy. They were unproductive in their corporate environment. They got them away from all the crap. What happened was they started creating things like the driving games for Atari. These were a huge profit stream for Atari. This same group of people in this lab created the Atari 2600.
I almost feel like I should ask you to applause this thing, but I won’t.
Russ: Thank you, Nolan Bushnell. Being on a separate location keeps people out of the line of firefighting. What I mean by that is they’re working on the future. They’re not working on the now. They don’t have to deal with somebody going, “Oh crap, this thing is on fire. Let’s get you in here. We all have to work on this.”
That’s keeping them away from what’s called the tyranny of now. That means you’re mortgaging your future to work on the crap that’s going wrong today. These folks, being two, two and a half hours away, could work on things about tomorrow that were going to be revenue streams.
Hyatt Labs. Mark, you know about these. Hyatt innovation labs. They have eight properties that they call lab hotels throughout the world, and four of them are in the United States. In these hotels, they’ve got seven to nine projects under way at any point in time. They get to spend no more than 90 days on the projects.
They get to create things that might not happen otherwise. For example, in Chicago, the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, they have this shuttle that will take people from the hotel to the airport. What they did is they moved in the ability to check in to the hotel there so you get your card and your key to go in when you get on the shuttle.
When you get off at the hotel, you’ve already got it. People started feeling like VIPs. They just walk right on in. They took care of that waiting thing at the airport, so you didn’t have to wait when you got in line. That’s cool. They were able to create those.
If those work, if they stick and people like them, they generate some interest, and people can lobby to get those put out enterprise-wide or in different locations.
Benefits of these, they keep teams and people away from office bureaucracy, which is smart. They maintain the entrepreneurial spirit.
They keep teams protected from daily distractions, and they allow the focus to be on future streams. They avoid that tyranny of now, firefighting stuff.
Lastly, my favorite one. I stole this from Fred Beecher, weaponized downtime. Reminds me a lot of hackathons. My manager at Burger King said this, and I love this. “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.” What that means is let’s say your project gets canceled. Let’s say a client backs away, something happens, and you’ve got a week or two of nothing to do. What do you do? Besides getting on Minecraft. Again, probably just me.
If you take those cards that I was talking about and you create those, you can come up with a whole bunch of different projects. An example of something I’ve done once was this design system in Axure.
I worked for a very large enterprise, and they created a very large design pattern library, but it was all in code. It was definitely not something that you could access easily if you were a designer who didn’t understand Twitter Bootstrap.
I found a couple of somebodies, and we said, “What if we take all of these pieces and we put them in Axure?” What if we plus one that and we make it training material so people can download a starter file? It’s not just, “Hey, Russ, give me the save as of your last thing.” We started to build this thing.
What we found is in two to three hours of people’s time per week, we got this whole pattern library. An entire website that people could download these pieces from across this global organization. We built it in six months. An entire Axure library website to download it, to watch all the training, to match all your fonts, et cetera.
We estimated the actual delivery time with full-time employees would have taken us four months. That’s cool. We were able to do this just in nickel and dime time. People were signing up to do it, because they had meetings that would get canceled. They could go create a couple of widgets. That was really cool.
Again, the way to set this up is to go just like these pattern libraries, but they don’t have to have a two-week time frame or a one-week time frame. They can be longer endeavors that you need to have done to fix your business.
These are the lower priority and high impact projects. They’re not the ones that you need it right away. We didn’t depend upon the Axure library. We decided it was a really good idea to have it. It generally requires a senior person to lead the effort, and it requires some really good documentation so that when people roll on and roll off, there’s continuity built into place.
What was really nice about this, too, is it’s a global organization. We had people working together in offices that didn’t normally see each other. That was cool because you saw the teams starting to coalesce a little bit more.
I know that’s a lot to take in. Like I said, I’m really just getting started. These are the top three that I’m working through. If you know of more, please come and find me after this. I would love to hear about them.
Finally, Kelly’s great rules. Multiple rules can apply to each of your Skunk Works projects. These slides will be online in a minute, so you can grab those. You can apply this thinking to your regular projects. If you can get people out of the way, you can have a lot more things getting done quicker.
The three types of Skunk Works projects that I’ve identified are hackathons, labs, and weaponized downtime. Thank you.