In the implementation world, there is often the Proof of Concept (POC) stage where you have to implement a portion or enough to prove the technology and showcase how it maps to the strategy. A POC is typically a condensed version of delivery. In our experience, there are two main variations of a POC: The Bottle Episode and the Skunkworks Project.
In episodic television, a bottle episode is produced cheaply and restricted in scope to use as few regular cast members, effects, and sets as possible.
The term “bottle show” was coined by Leslie Stevens, creator and executive producer of the 1960s TV series The Outer Limits, for an episode made in very little time at minimal cost, “as in pulling an episode right out of a bottle like a genie.” The earliest known use of the term “bottle episode” dates from 2003.
Bottle Episode projects usually follow the same structure – they are typically done fast and cheap to deliver in a gap. In a POC setting, they are the window-dressing version of implementations – often called a House of Cards. Bottle Episodes typically have a self-contained arc and are not part of the larger Sequential storyline. This is to say that Bottle episodes are gap fillers, not part of the overall strategy. In the delivery of the POC, many incorrectly assume that the Bottle Episode approach is the delivery of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). That is usually not the case because an MVP requires time to perform discovery to map the journey to the final product. Bottle Episodes do not deliver an MVP because time is usually not allowed for proper discovery.
Skunkworks projects are very different from Bottle Episode Projects. For one, Skunkworks projects are a more complete delivery approach to POCs. Skunkworks projects usually involve a small elite team, sometimes in secrecy, allowed to effectively self-govern the delivery of the requirements with little oversight or involvement from Executives. Skunkworks projects are supposed to follow Kelly’s 14 Rules, but we’ve seen plenty of projects that are less adherent to the rules and embody the principles of Skunkworks.
Skunkworks, the term, originated with Lockheed’s World War II Skunk Works projects, a play on a Lil’ Abner cartoon. Everett Rogers defined Skunkworks as an “enriched environment intended to help a small group of individuals design a new idea by escaping routine organizational procedures.”
The critical difference between the two is that Bottle Episode projects are typically done to be cheap and driven by the Executives. That is the driving force. And although one benefit of Skunkworks projects is that they are more affordable than the alternatives – their primary benefit is to innovate, bypassing many bureaucratic steps to do so. The result of the POC is that it typically takes longer but delivers a richer experience to everyone involved. In most cases, Skunkworks projects do deliver more MVP and less vapor-ware.
Skunkworks projects may seem appealing, but in most cases, they are not sanctioned high in the organization or even socialized. Hence, even if you deliver an innovative POC, the politics are usually where Skunkworks projects die. To make Skunkworks’ approaches work, they need the backing from the Executive layer and the freedom to operate without Executive mandates.
The Bottle Episode project does have its merits; however, it usually is best suited for enablement and not for Proof of Concepts.