Radical Teams Some of the world’s most well-known and high growth businesses are renowned for their team approaches: Airbnb, Netflix, Patagonia, Pixar and Zappos exemplify the use of effective teams to drive innovation.
We all know Pixar for their incredibly successful animated movies. But they don’t all start from such fruitful beginnings. Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder, talks about how much-loved movies such as Toy Story, Up, and Frozen started out as terrible early versions. According to Catmull, it was necessary for it to happen this way, with the emphasis not on the ideas, but on people and teams and how they can take those ideas forward. Pixar’s innovative culture is thanks to its safe environment where high candour is expected, problems are aired, and new ideas are developed. The creative teams are also highly autonomous when working on their projects, resulting in a strong sense of purpose and ownership.
In the book The Culture Code, Ed Catmull admits that as president of Pixar, he had no involvement in creative decisions. Rather, his role involved facilitating their teams to be successful: designing the buildings that allow for the right kinds of team interactions, keeping an eye on team dynamics and defending what could be very costly mistakes in the pursuit of great movies. Catmull coined a few “Ed-isms” that summarise Pixar’s culture: on embracing failure (“Fail early, fail often”); on inclusivity (“Listen to everyone’s ideas”); on candour (“Face toward the problems”) and on purpose (“B-level work is bad for your soul”).
The Amazing Story of SkunkWorks
‘Skunkworks’ is a term that has become synonymous with innovation thanks to the pioneering work of the Lockheed Corporation’s Skunk Works division. Companies such as Apple, Google, IBM, Microsoft have all mirrored the blueprint that Lockheed developed for building effective innovative teams.
In the 1940s, Lockheed tasked their aerospace engineer Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson with leading a top-secret team to design the US Army’s first high-speed fighter jet. The Advanced Development Programmes Division was established in a circus tent alongside a plastics factory in California. Apparently, due to the terrible smell in the air from the factory fumes, they began to refer to themselves as the Skunk Works and the name stuck.
The team was allowed autonomy and could operate free of any of the constraints and organisational bureaucracy that the other aerospace engineering teams worked under at the time. As a result, the Skunk Works engineers were responsible for the most amazing aircraft ever built, created under impossibly tight deadlines. To complete their fighter jet from design to delivery, they were given just 180 days and still managed to deliver the project with 37 days to spare.
The team succeeded because of a few fundamental principles that allowed them to operate in a radically innovative and creative way. Johnson believed in a small team of smart people and trusted them to good work. He also ensured that he eliminated anything that could tie the team up in red tape or derail them from their goal. Therefore, they bypassed the same processes as the rest of the company in terms of documentation and paperwork. They experimented and failed fast, ensuring rapid success by testing their ideas at pace.
As a result of their unique methods, the team was fast, creative, and singular in their focus. Johnson was famous for his ‘down to brass tacks’ style of management, with his motto: “Be quick, be quiet, and be on time.” This blueprint pioneered the agile methods we see today where teams identify ‘minimum viable products’ to identify what needs to be delivered, no more, no less, in order for a successful first iteration of a product or service.
The Skunk Works team spearheads Lockheed Martin’s most innovative, visionary projects to this day. This legacy is in part due to the very clear rules that Kelly Johnson laid out to ensure they were able to achieve their objectives. These principles still define how the team operates, over 75 years after it was formed.