In a time of extraordinary measures to deal with the Covid19 crisis, we need equally extraordinary ways of working to meet the challenge.
Acting at Breakneck Pace
Across the board, we are seeing organisations – private and public – respond to the Covid19 crisis in ways which in ‘normal’ times we wouldn’t have believed was possible. From the likes of McLaren, Airbus and Dyson producing ventilators in a record breaking number of days, to the NHS setting up huge new temporary hospitals across the country and central and local government relaxing rules and diverting resources to the front line and getting things done.
However, it begs a question. If we can do it at this time, why don’t we do it all the time? In releasing additional funding to support those in financial hardship, the Scottish Communities Secretary recently said “Our funding package will be focused on delivery, not bureaucracy or red tape. Local authorities, local businesses, community groups and the third sector know and understand the support needs of their communities the best”. It’s a statement which is very laudable, but you would think this would be a given, not an exception.
A Different Kind of Decision Making
There are already many lessons to be learned from the crisis, none more so than how Italy was engulfed by the virus before it had time to react. Some immediate observations are around the pace that is needed to respond and also how critical it is to be able to break down silos and work across all organisations.
As the Head of the Italian Civil Protection Department put it “The virus is faster than our bureaucracy”. It means that it is vital to work very differently than we are accustomed to and treat every attempt to support the fight against the virus as an experiment, adopt those which work and ‘fail fast’ and shut down those that do not. It also means it is critical to communicate and disperse information across organsations, working on a ‘duty to share’ principle.
A War Footing?
In thinking about the lessons, it’s worth looking back to 1943 as an example of experimentation and delivery at pace. When Germany’s first jet fighter planes appeared in the skies over Europe in 1943, the allies had no equal response. The U.S. War Department therefore immediately hired the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to build a working jet fighter prototype. Chief engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson assembled a ‘secret’ team and one month later they hand delivered the XP-80 Shooting Star jet fighter proposal to the Department. Quickly the go-ahead was given for Lockheed to start development on the United States’ first jet fighter.
The formal contract for the jet did not arrive at Lockheed until mid-October 1943; four months after work had already begun. The work commenced on a handshake, with no contracts in place and no official submittal process. Johnson and his team designed and built the XP-80 in only 143 days, 37 ahead of schedule.
The Birth of Skunk Works
The Lockheed team became know as Skunk Works, because they operated from a makeshift circus tent close to a foul-smelling plastics factory. Skunk Works continued to use the same principles in their approach to development and went on to deliver, amongst many other things, the U2 spy plane, the Blackbird and the F-117 stealth fighter. Skunk Works still exists at Lockheed today.
Over the years, the term Skunk Works has come to refer to any effort involving a special team that breaks away from the larger organisation to work autonomously on an advanced project, usually tasked with breakthrough innovation on limited budgets and under challenging timelines.
At Lockheed the Skunk Works team operated under three simple management principles: First, it’s more important to listen than to talk; second, even a timely wrong decision is better than no decision; and third (and my favourite), don’t half-heartedly wound problems – kill them dead.
There were also 14 rules for all Skunk Works projects as a way to put those principles into practice. Many of them can be applied to any Skunk Works project, and they prescribe a robust framework within which to operate. There are a couple which are worth applying in the context of cutting through the red tape during the current crisis.
- The manager must be delegated practically complete control of his programme in all aspects. They should report direct to a very senior decision maker.
- Strong but small project offices must be established.
- The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted as tightly as possible, with the smallest number of good people.
- There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.
Whilst there is still a long way to go to break the back of the pandemic in the UK, there will no doubt be more and greater innovations in the way the public and private sector deliver. When we do emerge on the other side into a world that will be very differently economically, as well as one where we may take a different view of social purpose and social value it is hoped that some of the lessons about how we worked together and how be focussed on getting the right things done will not be lost.
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