I read an article today about Why Corporate Skunkworks Need To Die. The article was published last month in Forbes and it was written by Steve Blanks.

While I totally understand the premise of continuous innovation that +steve blank makes, I believe that he has missed the fact that in some cases, you just can’t get there from here.

In fact, for some companies/industries, I believe that a skunkworks may be your only hope.

made a comment on his article that in the travel industry where I have
spent my last 35 years, I have seen companies try to innovate from
within. With few exceptions, most skunkworks quite frankly, don’t work,
or they focus on products that support just their existing core focus,
leaving true innovation beyond their grasp. Other companies simply rely
on acquisition to fill out their product suite.

In almost every
case the major players in the travel industry are just taking their
existing products, focused on the air traveler, and tweaking them. [I
would love for someone to prove me wrong on this point.]

we’ve finally started doing a good job with mobile and knitting in
location based services. Uber and HomeAway and airbnb have given us some
new options, but they are still focused on those that “magically” land
in a given destination.

We’ve gotten smarter about everything
that touches the air traveler, from the time that they leave their homes
to the time that they arrive at their destination, as long as that
destination is an airport or a city center.

Bravo. That is until
you realize that this particular market segment makes up just 13% of all
overnight trips in the US. Yikes. What about the other 87%? We have
summarily ignored them.
If your destination is much further away
from the city or the airport, or God forbid, you need to drive to more
than one destination, all of the sudden, booking travel gets hard.

been talking about this for nearly a decade now and am still amazed
that there has been no movement on this front. I will give the major
players in my industry the benefit of the doubt. I’ve spoken to many of
you about this and even invested time in helping some of you to
understand the opportunity.

Some of you are public or owned by
private equity (or even by VCs) and are caught up in the quarter by
quarter pressure for profitability. Or you are not given sufficient time
to allow an idea to germinate and or you are not given enough resources
to allow the idea to sprout into a full fledged, profitable business. I
know. It is sad. Or if there is excess cash on the balance sheet,
acquisition can be a tempting solution.

The challenge is that
those companies that make it on an acquisition target list generally
have already turned an idea into a business and quite often their
products and services only provide incremental improvement to a core
product line.

The real mischief is that if you are focused on
your product rather than your customer, you may miss an important
product or service trend.

Take a look at Weight Watchers. They
have been focused on their core product – their eating/tracking product,
coupled with their meetings and their online platform and tools. They
completely missed the “wearable” fitness device trend and their customer
base is down by 15% as a result. I believe they have also missed the
opportunity to do remote meetings using online meeting technology, such
as Google Hangouts, or even just plain old conference calling for a
weekly meeting with busy executives that don’t have time to get away for
a meeting. Or how about a weekly “walk!”.

The other innovation
mischief is that there are many innovators still out there who have
created amazing products and services, but they do not have proper
funding to take their ideas to market. Those firms may not be able to
attract capital and they definitely don’t make it onto the acquisition
list. I think that this is a mistake and these firms could provide
significant acceleration to firms that want to differentiate,
particularly in a commodity world.

Perhaps there is compromise to Blank’s premise.

believe that a skunkworks can be used not only to foster innovations
and build new businesses, but properly run, they can create a model for
organizations to infuse consistent, integrated innovation into the
mother ship.

Through an integrated, strategic planning process
focused on execution and integration, the fully built product or fully
defined service can then become a part of the more mature parent
organization. The learning, both good and bad, can be shared with the
core organization and of course, all along, the parent would be
providing guidance and insight, as well as funding to the skunkworks.

believe that this is a viable model to launch totally new products,
models, markets or even new ways of organizing or leading.

if there were an organization willing to run the skunkworks and even do
it as a joint venture, with a vested interest in its success. And just
maybe, that firm has a bit of technology that could make a real
difference in the landscape of one or more industries.

As always, I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is. Anyone game to turn the travel industry on its head?

Stay tuned. Skunkworks Solutionz™ may be around the corner…..

Chicke FitzgeraldChief Mischief Officer