The Challenge of Using Shared Personnel: Can a Skunk Help?

As a project manager, you may find it challenging to get the full attention of people assigned to you, if they are shared among multiple projects. This can be especially true for company "experts", whose contributions are so valuable they wind up assigned to lots of projects - but are unable to contribute much beyond advice. In an ideal world, you could rely upon full-time dedicated team members on your project. But in the real world of shared resources, what can you do?

One answer is to take a lesson from skunk works, and adapt it to the realities of your project.

Skunk works originated in World War II at Lockheed with the development of the first operational jet fighter. The project was finished substantially faster than would have been expected at the time because of an unswerving focus on the objective (war is a great motivator!). Among other success factors, bureaucracy was removed, and the team was placed in a separate location and was dedicated full-time to the project. Although the origin of the name is somewhat debatable, it has affectionately become a fixture at Lockheed and has been used generically elsewhere to describe many other high achievement projects since then.

Perhaps you would kill for the opportunity to run your project as a skunk works, with your team members able to devote their undivided attention to your project full-time. But, you have to live in the real world. Some people may be budgeted to you only 50 percent or less of their time, and management won't spring for an office just for your project. Nevertheless, there are some relatively easy steps you can take to reap many of the benefits of skunk works.

What you would realistically like to achieve is to get your team members to focus for the time they are available to you. Here are some suggestions for adapting skunk works to the realities of your project:
  • Have a clear and meaningful mission - One common characteristic of high performance teams is that they have a sense of being on "a mission from God." Once team members personally and emotionally buy into the objectives of a project, many of the usual obstacles can be readily overcome. Besides, when team members get emotionally committed to your project, they devote more attention to it!

  • Create a special space - When team members gather in the location associated with your project, it's easier to overcome distractions and to feel a sense of importance and buzz. While it helps to have a dedicated place, even a shared space will work, if it can be made special and unique. Many successful skunk works were set up in very Spartan environments, so be creative. Perhaps a little-known corner of the company warehouse will work, or even a regular table at the local coffee shop! And don't forget special on-line places for virtual teams, too.

  • Create time to focus - A key to creating focus is to ignore or block out distractions during the time team members are booked to your project. It helps to get commitments to specific blocks of time, with understandings that project time will be interrupted only for (real) emergencies.
So, even if you have to share people with other projects, take advantage of the best practices of skunk works to make it easier for them to focus while you do have them. Although the name may initially seem a bit foul, the high-performance results that a skunk works can deliver are sweet-smelling indeed!

This article originally appeared in the Successful Project Management Newsletter, January, 2000, Pages 2-3. ©Copyright 2000, Management Concepts, Inc.

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