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How a Skunk Works Approach Can Help You Balance 'Business as Usual' and Innovation

My company was able to synergize day-to-day operations and dynamic evolution, and yours can too.

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The first department in our company was research and development (R&D), for which we hired two engineers that boasted a balance of technical knowledge and work experience.

Why those individuals? They could come up with ideas, build them out and, thanks to their business experience, validate them and make sure they were actually doable. Our goal has always been to create innovative products, and the company became their playground.

Businesses often fall into the trap of innovating solely within their existing products and services (witness the ongoing iPhone "newest model" obsession). There's nothing wrong with that, but any company that wants to remain innovative can't just iterate forever. Which is why, unbeknownst to many, Apple is also working on a mixed reality headset, augmented reality glasses, and reportedly a car.

A dynamic we applied at my company was akin to that of Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Programs, aka Skunk Works (responsible for some of the most iconic aircraft designs ever conceived, such as the SR-71 Blackbird, F-117 Nighthawk and F-35 Lightning II). Thanks to a similar structure, we're able to balance our day-to-day business as usual (BAU) with innovation: R&D regularly explores new ideas, but nothing gets passed on until it is fully validated. We focus on concrete projects only, to avoid distractions.

Related: #5 Reasons Why Start-ups Should Invest in R&D to Produce Innovative Products and Services

Here are a few lessons learned along our way.

Avoid iterations that do more harm than good

Products and services can always be worked on. A tweak here, an extra feature there. But if 100% of your innovation efforts are going into iterations of existing products and services, you'll dig yourself into a rut.

TV shows are notorious for this. The Simpsons, Lost, Suits, The Office, you name it. For most shows, there's a natural ending point: a season that ties things up nicely. Others plow ahead with another season that makes zero sense. This can seem forced, quickly becomes boring, and prompts the question, "Instead of building and building on the same show, why don't writers start a new one… expend talents on a new idea?" The key here is to focus on unfilled gaps and unsolved problems.

Jack Dorsey created Twitter after finding that the blog sites he used weren't fulfilling his needs. He then created Square after a friend of his couldn't make a sale because he couldn't process an American Express card. Every new idea of his was born of one thing: problem-solving.

Don't assume your initial success was a one-hit wonder that you now have to pledge undying loyalty to. For every problem you come across, don't just accept it: question it.

The nation of Libya had no formalized address system until we at Lamah Technologies launched our platform. It was a problem known by all but solved by none, until we stopped and asked, "Why?"

Related: Why Your R&D Budget Should Be the Last Place You Cut

Silo innovation efforts

The digital addressing app we developed to address the above challenge has unlimited room to grow. There's a lot of research that can be done — extra features and options that can be added. And that way, the product never gets finished.

Facebook is just one company that's testing the boundaries here. The platform started as a way to keep in touch with friends and family: Now it's used for events, buying and selling, work, advertising, gaming, you name it. But the overload and complexity of the platform has now become a problem in itself.

There's a common misconception that more features inevitably lead to more value, but feature creep can make a product or service overly complicated. Plus, if our R&D team worked on the app, they'd spend all their time there. It would be a time suck that results in nothing. Instead, we keep them separate. They've come up with an idea for a dashboard that harnesses the data from the app, but that work is still separate — an added value service that plays off existing work without piling on top of it.

The product roadmap for the application was set a long time ago, as with most services and products. We do speak to the team that works on this to develop new ideas and improvements, but speaking to people beyond that could mean losing that sense of direction we've cultivated.

The next move we are considering is creating a smart kiosk. This has nothing to do with our existing offering as it stands, but it's innovation, a possibility… a potentially viable product that we want to explore, and thanks to our setup, we can.

Related: A Guide to Turning Your Customers Into Your Product Designers

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