Friday, September 7, 2007

Skunk Works Projects

Typically, Zango's product development lifecycle starts with Product Managers who help to specify the product and prioritize work around it; and then the actual programming and feature creation happens in Development. This is fairly typical – nothing particularly interesting here. However, it's a fact of life – and a fact worth celebrating – that not all great ideas need to get their start in Product Management. Sometimes, folks in Dev (or who have development skills) have ideas for products that they like to play around with. We call those projects "Skunk Works Projects", after the famous Lockheed Martin Advanced Development group.

We like skunk works projects, and want to encourage developers to work on them, as they see fit, without a great deal of centralized control. It's a great way to foster innovation, and shortcut the bureaucracy that's inherent in developing products in a large, distributed organization (that is nevertheless consistently short on resources). However, before a developer spends his next six weekends working out his latest bright idea, we've instituted these guidelines for them to consider – and I thought the guidelines were worth sharing.

  • It's a little flexible how much regular work time you can/should spend on skunk works projects. But the hard-and-fast rule is that skunk works projects can't delay regular SDLC'd projects. If existing, project-managed, product-managed work requires overtime to meet the date you've committed to, your skunk works project has to go on hold.
  • If you're smart, you'll check with your friendly neighborhood product manager before spending a bunch of time on an idea. You don't have to – we're talking about skunk works projects here – but product managers generally have a good feel for what sort of ideas are perfect, which ones are interesting but just won't fit into our schedule anytime soon, and which just don't make sense. So why not spend time brainstorming and building trust with your key allies?
  • Before you introduce your idea to folks beyond the initial developers/brainstormers, show it to Product first. You don't want your idea shot down in a room full of twenty people: give Product the chance to give feedback on it first, in a smaller setting.
  • Be ready for disappointment. For a variety of different reasons, most skunk works ideas don't make it all the way through to a released product. They can still be valuable, whether as a learning experience for yourself, or to get people thinking, or what-have-you: but just because you really like the idea doesn't mean that it's the right thing for the company to spend the resources required to turn it into a production-ready system or a market-ready product.
  • No skunkworks project gets rolled out without eventually getting turned over to Product Management. And once that happens, you become a stakeholder just like everyone else. Eventually your babies grow up and move out on their own.
  • Your vision for your project might not be what Product Management eventually does with it. Feel free to whine and complain about this – but also be ready to suck it up and deal with it.

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