Lessons from the Skunk Works’®Frank Cappuccio

Geoffrey Orsak
 Geoffrey C. Orsak

Failure is not an option — so the famous NASA saying goes. But is it really the right perspective for us today?

Just look around. We are starting to see the real effects of our national fear of failure in technology innovation. Our bedrock companies are losing their edge. Nowhere is this more evident than in the big three automotive companies who have ceded cutting-edge ideas to our international competition.

You hear the question often: What would our auto industry look like if it was based in Silicon Valley? Yes, the notion of guaranteed employment might be a thing of the past (isn’t it already), but would the relentless drive to innovate found in the valley have been able to thrive in a large engineering organization?

As a nation we are all struggling to find ways to deliver more innovation with smaller staffs, on much tighter time constraints. Seems like a nearly impossible task — but let me share with you an example that has not only stood the test of time, but also actually thrived in nearly every economic environment.

The iconic Skunk Works® has been kicking out one innovation after another for 65 years. In fact, the head of the Skunk Works®, Frank Cappuccio, who is also executive vice president at Lockheed Martin,  accepted the 2007 National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Bush on behalf of the Skunk Works’® remarkable impact on our country.

We recently hosted Frank here at the SMU Lyle School of Engineering and he was generous enough to open the kimono on the Skunk Works®. Founded in 1943 by the legendary Kelly Johnson, this top secret R&D shop was originally housed in a circus tent in Burbank, CA. From these humble and odorous beginnings arose a powerful vision for engineering — one built on “speed, simplicity and cooperation.”

Kelly’s 14 rules for innovation have been the cornerstone of the Skunk Works® for more than 65 years and have been emulated and studied for decades.

The model behind the Skunk Works® is more relevant to our country today than ever before. While they are famous for their successes, the reality is that they have achieved the extraordinary because of their willingness to fail. As Frank put it, they fail at least as often as they succeed. He says simply, “fail fast, fail early.”

Unfortunately, as U.S. “big industry” has shown, we have become increasingly risk adverse. Blame the quarter-to-quarter reporting that drives company leaders or blame recent generations who have lacked big challenges. We have seen the erosion of organizations willing to embrace failure as a necessity of innovation — thus creating the economy built on incrementalism. That is just not going to cut it in a world where a new breakthrough piece of technology, from an unknown team halfway around the globe, can literally change everything overnight.

It might seem counterintuitive, but the folks at the Skunk Works® have created an environment where you can “successfully fail.” This not only applies to advanced aircraft, but also to entrepreneurism, education — you name it.

If we are going to rebuild this economy through innovation and not bailouts, we must become more “skunky” to launch ourselves ahead of our global competition. We all fail, as organizations and individuals; we just need to do it successfully.