How Not to Do Mobile Strategy: Killing the Skunk

Skunk works projects only work if you let them.

skunk
Credit: Dan Dzurisin via Flickr

Given the fast pace of technological change, many large companies are wondering how they can adapt and what strategies they can use to cope. This is particularly true in mobile, where companies have to adapt. Many software companies must not only provide mobile apps, but also rethink and redesign their software for a mobile-first world. And many other large enterprises have to adapt to the world of IT consumerization, which includes how they buy and run hardware and software.

One common answer of management textbooks to this problem is to create small "skunk-works" teams that will be given resources and shielded from managerial meddling. But it's a lot more complicated than it sounds, and there's an art to it. 

That's the main lesson of an excellent in-depth reported story by Giga Om's Janko Roettgers on the failures of LG's Smart TV team. You may remember something about Web OS, Palm's critically well-regarded but commercially unsuccessful mobile OS, and that Palm ended up being acquired by HP and then basically shut down. You may also remember (I certainly didn't) that HP eventually spun off the Web OS team, and that it was later acquired by the South Korean electronics maker LG.

From the start, LG had ambitious goals for the team: They would be precisely that kind of skunk works team that would breathe a Silicon Valley air of innovation into the stodgy Asian conglomerate. They would not only get the resources and the autonomy to create cool new products for LG, but they would eventually be LG's innovation grandmasters.

It didn't pan out that way, and the story goes into the details of the problems that plagued the team, but they boil down to this: The company's senior management didn't keep its promises. 

The team was supposed to get the resources to do its work, but it didn't, so it had to rely on South Korean software engineers from a different location and a different culture and with different incentives. 

The team was supposed to get autonomy, but many layers of LG management felt they had to have input into the final product. 

The team was supposed to be allowed to innovate, but the company kept sticking fingers in every pie. 

This holds profound lessons for management, which are applicable across the board.

First: have credibility. If you say you're going to do something, do it. It sounds basic, but it's basic because it's important. 

Second: execution matters as much as concept. The "skunk-works" concept is good. The reason it didn't work for LG -- and so many other big companies that try skunk works projects as hail marys -- was because LG didn't actually do it. They didn't give the team the autonomy and the resources that they needed. 

Yes, if you do that, you are taking a big risk of wasting plenty of manpower and resources. You are taking a big risk of political capital inside your company, because everybody else is going to be jealous of the new and relatively unaccountable skunk-works teams. You are taking a big risk because the skunk-works team might come out with some terrible, embarrassing product, at least at first. 

You are taking a big risk because you are innovating. But that's what it was about in the first place. The problem is not in the willing, it's in the doing. Are you going to face down another important director who tells you they must have input into the new project, or are you going to punt, thereby trapping your skunk works team in endless meetings with irrelevant people? Are you going to give the promised autonomy to your team, even when you think they're doing something ridiculous? 

Talking about doing those things is easy. Actually doing them is hard. Which is why I'm the guy writing the columns.

This story, "How Not to Do Mobile Strategy: Killing the Skunk" was originally published by CITEworld.

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