Problem Solving Today's Challenges With Creativity

How a hippie guitarist from Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers gained a top-secret security clearance through unconventional thinking.

May 01, 2018

CHICAGO – Jeffrey Baxter, or “Skunk” as he’s known to friends and colleagues, has one of the more unique career journeys, from working at a music shop in Manhattan, a founding member of Steely Dan, joining the Doobie Brothers, becoming one of the most sought-after guitarists in the music industry, to a counterterrorism and missile defense expert with a top-secret security clearance. Oh, and nine platinum albums and two Grammys.

For attendees at the Conexxus Annual Conference, taking place this week in Chicago, Baxter juxtaposed problem solving and analysis in a wartime or boardroom situation with musical improvisation.

Baxter explained that there are two types of music. One, the symphony: completely from score, no improvisation, and the only person with any real input on the performance is the conductor. Two is the jazz quintet, where the band picks a theme to play to, and each musician steps out and solos to that theme while the rest of the band backs him/her up. “What they’ve done is take an entropic state surrounded by a set of boundaries and created and analytic product,” he said. 

To teach jazz improvisation to a group of counterterrorism or intelligence analysts, Baxter talked about the late Air Force colonel and military strategist John Boyd’s OODA Loop—observe, orient, decide and act. The tool offers a path for how individuals and organizations respond to a stimulus. For Boyd, the concept came about during his time as a fighter pilot, and it’s a tool widely used today. For Baxter, Boyd coined a concept of construction and creation, which is what musicians do. It’s also a dynamic way for people to think more outside of their boundaries, or comfort zone.

Military and music aside, can the OODA Loop be applied to business situations? According a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, the answer is yes: “We believe modern leaders face the same problem as Boyd’s fighter pilots decades ago: they need to make decisions better and faster than the opposition. Like fighter pilots, they must acquire data, turn data into insight, and then act on that insight. The difference is that modern leaders must enable entire organizations to have this capacity.”

Thanks to the combination of creative and analytical thinking, Baxter has also earned his place as a leader in war game exercises. Now by Northrup Grumman describes one of the exercises Baxter lead in the 1990s of a fictional coalition of Iran and Iraq trying to drive out American military forces in the Persian Gulf. “Outmatched and outgunned, Baxter came up with the idea of an oil-eating bacteria, which rendered Saudi Arabian oil supplies worthless and saw oil-dependent U.S. allies pressuring the country to back off before the damage became too great.”

The parallels Baxter draws through his life as a musician and analyst prove that the arts and sciences can co-exist in situations where quick, creative and detailed solutions to immediate problems must be solved. He also touched upon another concept that any leader can use today for developing solutions to business situations: Kaizen, also known as long-term continuous improvement in processes that improve efficiency and quality. 

In the spirt of Kaizen, ask the people on your teams what they do outside of the workplace, like hobbies and other interests, suggested Baxter, noting that the answers could surprise you. In doing so, you’ll likely find people who can bring a new focus to problems you’re trying to solve. Sometimes, the best ideas can come from those who you least expect. Like a hippie musician nicknamed “Skunk.”