The Power of Skunk Works to Ignite Innovation

The Power of Skunk Works to Ignite Innovation

Informal collaboration within and across companies can be a source of disruptive innovation
Informal collaboration within and across companies can be a source of disruptive innovation

Are you on a mission to turn an idea into reality, and have recruited collaborators within the company to work on the unofficial project? If so, you’re part of an age-old phenomenon that Peter Gloor, a research scientist at MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence, calls Collaborative Innovation Networks (COINs).

Gloor believes that COINs are becoming increasingly important as an engine of innovation for large organizations that must keep pace with fast-moving markets

He will explore the evolution of COINs and future applications of these networks at the Crossroads 2015 conference, March 24th, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus.

COINs, often called skunk works, have been around for a long time. Benjamin Franklin used the concept to develop a number of his innovations, and in his autobiography described ground rules for establishing such a network that are still relevant today.

A more recent representation, and Gloor’s favorite example of a COIN, is the group of forward-thinkers at MIT who formed a consortium in the 1990s to create the World Wide Web. Gloor had just joined MIT, and his subsequent research into the Web and intranet communications led to the birth of the COIN concept.

Today, the internet and social media, combined with an insatiable appetite for new products, is driving another phase in the development of COINs.

The basic process for setting up a COIN typically starts with a highly motivated, creative person, who has an idea he or she wants to bring to fruition. This evangelist recruits a group of like-minded allies – maybe three to 12 people – to carry the project forward. Once the initial, outlandish idea has been translated into a prototype, more collaborators are attracted to the project to form a collaborative learning network; the incubator for the COIN.

Importantly from a supply chain perspective, the original idea can be an innovative process, and the COIN might span more than one organization to include, say, enthusiasts from a manufacturer and a core supplier. For example in 2004/5 people from Ford and a core supplier formed COINs to design parts for the new Ford Focus. The initiative also led to fundamental changes in the supply chain for the parts.

Another key feature of these networks is that they have a rotating leadership. As Gloor explains, once established a COIN needs different types of leadership as it evolves. At first the leader is a missionary who drives the group’s work. As the project matures, it requires more sales skills at the top. Also, leaders motivate and nurture the efforts of the participants, but have relatively little power over the group.

Gloor has developed an app called Condor that analyzes social networks and spots current or emerging COINs. Variables that identify a COIN are built into the software. Leadership and contribution – the number of times communications are sent versus received – are two examples. Speed of response is another; according to Gloor a person’s eagerness to respond to a message is a measure of his or her interest in the sender. Emotionality is an important variable, because the level of passion exhibited by participants correlates with the success of the project.

It’s becoming more important for companies to be able to identify and foster COINs, Gloor believes. Product life cycles are getting shorter, and COINs are a primary source of disruptive innovation as well as a means for companies to become more agile and responsive to shifting market demands. He foresees corporate structures becoming more cellular as larger numbers of employees come together via social media across companies and countries to develop their ideas.

“Today, large organizations need what the army calls “power to the edge”, to delegate responsibility (for innovation), and that means encouraging people who are self-motivators,” says Gloor.

 More information on Crossroads 2015, including registration form, is available here. If you have a question about registering for the event contact Nancy Martin at NLMartin@mit.edu.

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