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The Church Needs Skunk Works

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8 steps to implement a process that will foster innovation and transfuse organic life into your church.

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Excerpted from “Church Transfusion: Changing Your Church Organically From the Inside Out” by Neil Cole and Phil Helfer (Jossey-Bass, © 2012)

In 1943, at the height of World War II, the engineers coming from the same schools being taught by the same professors were not producing the technological breakthroughs that were needed. To get faster and better results, Lockheed decided to try something different. The company selected its most creative engineers and put them all in a tent set up at the end of a runway next to a plastics factory in Burbank, California. The engineers were told to think together outside the box on a specific project.

The members of this group began to push boundaries and try new things. Without all the red tape of the standard business bureaucracy, they were able to get things done much faster, usually ahead of schedule, and often with nothing more than a verbal agreement and a handshake.

They became known as “skunk works” because of the smell of the plastic factory wafting into the tent. The name came from the Li’l Abner comic strip, and it stuck. Today skunk works has become a technical term in research and development and in the diffusion of innovation. It is widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, often tasked with working on advanced or secret projects. The original Lockheed skunk works (which still exists) is responsible for some of the most notable advancements in technology in aerospace and defense. Such things as stealth technology and smart bombs were developed there. The Macintosh computer was developed in a skunk works project under the demanding leadership of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. The first laptop was designed and developed by a skunk works group that was literally kept secret from the very organization that made it and had determined that it was not a worthy investment—Toshiba.

The truth is that the church in the United States has needed skunk works for some time. For many decades all our leaders were coming from the same education system and bringing the same paradigm to the church. By God’s grace, however, many have emerged recently that are injecting the kingdom with new ideas and fresh expressions of church free from the old institutional systems that tend to perpetuate the same old stuff while stuck in a constant mode of self-preservation.

When you lead a church that is established, you may need a skunk works operation of your own if you want to experience a transfusion of organic life and principles into it. We have found that a systemwide corporate change launched all at once from the top down tends to diffuse any real impact and does little to actually transform a church or its people. Such a scenario may bring about programmatic change, but it will not be internal, grass-roots, and organic. That is why we suggest you launch a skunk works project on the side. It will allow the change to come from the people rather than the pastoral staff alone. You are far more likely to get buy-in on a smaller scale at first and then see sustained progress as more and more people adopt the new ideas.

As a leader of your church, you can always cast vision for change, but the actual implementation may require a slower and smaller start if it is to yield holistic transformative results. Any true organic change must be internal, relational, and advance virally—like a contagion from one person to the next. We believe that this requires that you start small with a unique group and let its influence spread. A skunk works approach is the best way to initiate this sort of transformation.  

Skunk Works Considerations

When you initiate a skunk works project, a few things are important to consider.

Select Your Innovators Carefully

It is not necessary to involve many people in the beginning. It is far more important to select the right people. Every successful skunk works story emphasizes one common characteristic: the people were hand-selected, and the criteria for that selection were very important. You want people who are creative risk takers willing to try something new. Select people who will look at a situation and see opportunity rather than obstacles. You want people who tend to ask, “Why not?” when presented with an idealistic solution to a challenging problem. It is OK to combine thinkers with doers, but to start with only thinkers will be lethal to the project and to start with only doers will be hit or miss.

There is no reason that you can’t have more than one skunk works project at a time, but we suggest you not spread the few innovative people you have over too many projects. If the senior leader tends to be a more innovative risk taker, that person can certainly be part of the initial experimentation, but this is not necessary for success. What is necessary is that the leader be supportive of the change and be willing to place the overall good of the church over his or her own ego.

Most senior leaders tend to think of themselves as innovative, even when they are not, so seek objective advice and be willing to stay out of the way. The truth is that if this is going to work, your initial innovators will likely let you know who they are and will either not be stopped or will go somewhere else to get it done, so simply listen well to what more creative people are passionate about and give them permission to proceed.

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