Off the Shelf: January 2022 (skunkworks)

I’m reading two other books on the “whitespace” in organizations at the moment when I came across this HBR article that I had clipped some time before. In my experience, “whitespace” in an organization is usually defined as the space between blocks in an org chart or the hand-off space in processes—both places to go looking for great operational efficiencies. Maletz and Nohria take a different approach.

The Skunk Works logo as seen on one of Lockheed Martin’s hangars. (From Wikipedia)

Managing in the Whitespace

In their article, Maletz and Nohria define whitespace as “the large but mostly unoccupied territory in every company where rules are vague, authority is fuzzy, budgets are nonexistent, and strategy is unclear” (p. 103).1 It’s a place “where entrepreneurial activity that helps reinvent and renew an organization takes place.” This sounds more like skunkworks to me than anything else, and the management suggestions outlined in this paper match my skunkworks experience in several efforts over the years.

The article outlines three preconditions for moving an effort to the whitespace: great uncertainty over an opportunity, organizational politics and a high chance of internal disruption. The writers then outline four challenges when operating in the whitespace and suggestions on how to overcome, concluding with criteria for deciding which of three paths to follow next.

A small example with big impact

As the department manager at a previous employer, we were challenged to keep our network and data flow diagrams matching reality. Automation allowed for frequent and unattended reconfiguring, manual updates weren’t staying up to date, and during infrequent incidents, precious seconds were wasted in determining what production looked like “now”. As the manager of the team, I remember hearing “let me check the config files” entirely too many times. But, if the config files were the source of record, why not build our documentation and diagrams off reality rather than manually chasing current state? When I circulated the idea, it (1) was unclear if we’d be successful, (2) had never been done before and (3) would change the way we were supporting the infrastructure.

I already had a head start: Mobilizing Resources, something Maletz and Nohria indicate is key. I had earlier lobbied for and received acknowledgement that we would spend up to 10% of our workweek on non-billable projects: things of interest to us, generally related to work, but perhaps not directly.2 And so an interested team member began work. It started slowly as he found his way, but soon, we had 2-3 team members working on it each week and a pilot to demo, Establishing Legitimacy. Once we were able to demo it to the rest of the team, more time was spent and ideas gathered and progress made, Building Momentum. I remember worrying out loud that we needed to get a pilot, proof-of-concept working so we could demo it before we were discovered and shut down. By the time we were ready to show my management that we didn’t need to manually update network and data flow diagrams, we had developed solid ways of Measuring Results and were able to able to migrate this effort out of the whitespace and into the “blackspace”, what the writers identify as all those things “that a company has formally targeted and organized itself to capture (p. 104).” It had reached “critical mass” (p. 110) and needed more formal oversight, including change management and rigorous source code control.

The last I’d heard, it was being used, not only for CMDB purposes, but also to manage the infrastructure—it had grown from a skunkworks/whitespace project to being an integral part of the environment.

Wrapping up

I can think of a number of other efforts, initiatives and projects over the years that match up with this “skunkworks” or “whitespace” description—too many to share here.
Readers: Do you have any examples (successful or not) in your career that you can think of?


Books and articles read:

Aidan, P. (2007). These three remain. Atria Books.
Bell, C., & Lasky, D. (2014). El Deafo. Amulet Books.
Jamieson, V. (2017). Roller girl. Puffin.
Maletz, M. C., & Nohria, N. (2001). Managing in the Whitespace. Harvard Business Review, 102–111.
Marquis, D. (1950). The lives and times of archy and mehitabel; with pictures by George Herriman and an introd. by E.B. White. Doubleday.
Vincent, S. P. (2017). The omega strain. Steve P. Vincent.

Show 2 footnotes
  1. That could match up with Rummler and Brache, but it’s still a different viewpoint.
  2. Some very large improvements came out of this 10%, including this one, as well as a site speed increase that bumped us past our nearest competitor, kept us there for some time and regularly saved our customers a combined work-week of waiting on a regular basis.
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