What do Innovation, Rock and Defense Tech have in Common?

What do Rock ‘n’ Roll, innovation and defense technology have in common?  If you’ve heard this story, you probably have a guess.  If not, it might surprise you to find the answer is one person: Skunk Baxter.

Jeffrey Allen “Skunk” Baxter (1948 – ) is a talented musician, songwriter, producer and sound engineer.  Mr. Baxter joined his first band at age 11, and was originally a drummer.  He taught himself how to play bass and guitar while in high school and eventually became a proficient keyboard player as well.  He played in several bands while at Boston University as a journalism major, and worked part-time in a music store repairing guitars and amplifiers.

His professional music career began in the late 1960’s as a session guitarist, but his talents were quickly noticed.  He was selected to be a founding member of Steely Dan, and played on their first two albums.  When founders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen decided they would stop touring and only play in the studio, Baxter left Steely Dan and signed on to the Doobie Brothers.  In five years recording and touring with the Doobie Brothers he fundamentally altered their sound, both through his guitar-playing and other contributions in the studio, and because he introduced the band to Michael McDonald who replaced original lead singer, Tom Johnston.  McDonald lent his unique vocal style to the band’s biggest hits like ‘Takin’ it to the Streets’ and ‘What a Fool Believes.’ The latter won a Grammy in 1980 for song of the year.

After leaving the Doobie Brothers, Baxter continued to be a sought-after musician and producer.  He has toured and/or recorded with the likes of Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, Bryan Adams, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow and Rod Stewart – a veritable who’s who of rock royalty.  Baxter still plays today, and in addition to his studio work, writes songs for television shows and movies.  Incidentally, he has never publicly disclosed the source of his nickname.

All-in-all, an incredible journey for a multi-talented musical genius.  But as you may have guessed, this is only half the story…

In the mid-1980’s, Baxter become interested in defense technologies that he might be able to apply to recording music, primarily compression algorithms.  With the help of a neighbor who was a retired engineer who had worked on defense contracts, Baxter tracked down data sources (pre-internet), eventually subscribing to ‘Aviation Weekly’ and ‘Defense News.’

Though entirely self-taught, Baxter wrote a white paper on an application for a missile defense system that eventually caught the eye of his Congressman who was able to get him in front of the right sub-committees.  Adept at explaining complex technologies and their implications in layman’s terms, Baxter was granted increasingly higher security clearances and was eventually named Chair of the Civilian Advisory Board for Ballistic Missile Defense.

Today, Baxter serves as a consultant for the DoD and the intelligence community, as well as several major defense contractors.

At first blush, this story seems so fantastic that it almost can’t be true, except that it is.  While the details are unique, the truth is that this is almost always how innovation happens – someone who is an ‘outsider’ with no stake in how we’ve always done things is able to connect the dots in a different way and produce something that is a game-changer.  So at this time when innovation is not just a priority, but a matter of survival to many companies, it is critical to ask, “who is your Skunk Baxter?”

How do you find and leverage people who can think differently and persuade others to think about what could be and not just what has been (or what is in the annual plan)?  Based on our experience with our clients, we have developed a list of things many companies overlook that we believe are worth considering:

  1. Recognize that innovation is about connectivity at least as much as discovery – Skunk Baxter has said, “We thought turntables were for playing records until rappers began to use them as instruments, and we thought airplanes were for carrying passengers until terrorists realized they could be used as missiles.” In a more relevant example, when Apple introduced the first iPod, all of the hardware technology was at least three years old – a lifetime in consumer electronics.  What set the iPod apart and enabled it to define the category was not the hardware, but rather the i-tunes ‘eco-system’ that made downloading and managing digital music legal, easy and fun.
  2. Evaluate the idea not the source – too many companies shut down ideas because they didn’t come from the right part of the organization.  Yet as advertising genius Leo Burnett observed decades ago: “Good ideas don’t care where they come from.” One of the reasons that Skunk Baxter was able to make his original recommendation on missile defense was that he was essentially adapting a Navy system to an Army application.  We can’t help but wonder if, without an outside forcing function, the Army might otherwise have rejected the idea as “not invented here.” One thing we know about innovation is that you cannot script it or force it to occur on your timeline.  By all means you should have a systematic process for evaluating opportunities – we define a pretty good one in Grassroots Strategy – but it should focus on making the idea better, not running down the source.
  3. Cherish the polymaths – in this complicated world with increasing specialization, it is too easy to assume that there are no longer any polymaths, those who are good at many things.  Thomas Jefferson is the classic American example.  We know him as a statesman, author and (self-trained) architect, but he also spoke five languages, was one of the first winemakers in the US and played a more than respectable violin. While perhaps rare, polymaths are out there and when you find one, they should be cherished, as people who can look at problems from more than one perspective can bring unique insight.  Perhaps you can start by asking your team what they have a passion for outside of work.
  4. Reward integrative, not just functional, thinking – too many companies reward and promote excellence in a function (finance, sales, operations, etc.) without giving people many chances to work across departments. Yet, the answers to complex problems almost always require integrative thinking – not optimizing within one ‘silo’ but stepping back and thinking differently about the whole.  We recall a conversation some years ago with the President of the US for a major global financial institution.  Since this gentleman was nearing retirement, someone at the dinner asked him what experience had most shaped him and prepared him for his larger general manager roles.  He surprised just about everyone at the table when he said it was a rotational assignment that he had reluctantly accepted to spend 18 months in Human Resources (HR).  He said that prior to that assignment, he was comfortable as a ‘finance guy’ in a finance company, believing that the numbers told the whole story.  He learned in HR that there is always a people side of every decision, and he felt strongly that that insight helped set him apart as a general manager.
  5. Try periodic creativity breaks – while we are generally skeptical of claims that innovation can be sparked by locking people in a room with Tinker Toys and having them work on problems unrelated to their businesses, there is increasing scientific evidence that innovative ideas typical occur when you are thinking of something else.  In other words innovation cannot be forced.  There is something to that instinct that good ideas strike when you are in the shower, or out for a run.  So, if you and your team are stuck, take a break.  Go to the gym, go bowling, or work on a community service project together.  At a minimum, it will be good for you, and you might just find the next big idea popping into your head when you least expect it.

Innovation is unlike anything else that a leadership team has to do.  You cannot make it happen on your budget or within your deadline – forcing it to do so ensures that you will only get low risk, incremental ideas.  Ordering your team to work harder to innovate without changing the rules or the players is like that paradoxical lyric from “What a Fool Believes”: “trying hard to recreate what had yet to be created.” Instead of trying to mandate innovation, enlightened leaders will strive to create the environment where innovation can flourish – where opportunities are evaluated on their merits and given time to blossom and grow.

One of the keys to creating a better environment for innovation is being able to recognize and empower your Skunk Baxters.  Powerful ideas can come from the unlikeliest sources, are you and your team even looking for them?

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