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I'm not entirely convinced that Johnson's example generalizes well. He might just represent an instance of survivorship bias.

Some people can be brilliant at something while at the same time being toxic, with the toxicity ultimately winning. Kalanick at Uber might be an example.




Lots of companies have tried to establish a skunkworks, but with "improvements". None have done particularly well. (The "improvements" were taking away the autonomy of the skunkworks.)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skunkworks_project


I've also seen it fail the other way where the Skunkworks becomes the preserve of "high achievers" not producing a lot that's useful. Almost every 'Office of the CTO' I've seen has suffered that failure mode. Lot's of things get built but none are more than fluffy experiments and there's no path to actually putting any of those things into production. Once in a while they'll be forced through and the production team has to spend a lot of effort fixing and making the project actually work.


Isn't that just a lack of clear goals? Skunkworks had extremely ambitious deliverables and was not a science lab, even though they helped develop a lot of new technology.


I think that's a part of it but there's also the question of how they interface with everyone else. IME a lot of these teams end up working in isolation from everyone else. And the patronage of the team usually makes them somewhat untouchable or unquestionable.


I'm not arguing against the autonomy part, on the contrary: I join you in arguing in favor of it, and also that such an autonomy requires a brilliant personality at the head of it.

However, while the combination of autonomy and brilliant personality might be a prerequisite of outstanding success, I'm not yet convinced that it's an overwhelming indicator of it. I believe that a brilliant but toxic personality with autonomy can lead to an ultimately fatal instability.




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