Several years ago a team of researchers at the Mars Candy company had the idea for personalized M & Ms. They may not have imagined such a concept going viral for birthday parties and weddings. Retirements and housewarmings. Party hostess gifts. Baptismal, confirmation and graduation presents. But the idea of printing faces or names or company logos or cute sayings on M & M candies took hold of their imagination. But barring historical data and research from focus groups, their bosses were reluctant to go with the project. And ultimately, if not for small group innovation teams, the personalized M & M may never have made it to the marketplace.
The Mars R & D team competed for, and won funding for developing their idea in a sort of Skunkworks innovation environment. In such an environment, their small group had the green light and the autonomy to develop the product and bypass the usual bureaucratic process. Though in many cases bureaucracy is a necessary and important part of product development. However, in the case of M & M’s with cute personal messages and faces, this environment yielded a product that was soon selling like hot cakes – without the melty aspect.
Skunkworks is a popular moniker for small, innovative, autonomous development teams working secretly to arrive at a product that would later go through the normal review process. The curious name originated in the Lil Abner comics where a toxic product called “Skonk Oil” was manufactured in secret for unspecified purposes. The M & M’s Skunkworks team involved about a dozen people working by trial and error and testing their product among employees rather than using focus groups. Such an approach allowed them to quickly implement changes from feedback. Soon enough they had arrived at a winning formula that’s now hugely popular.
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