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5 Lessons I Learned from The Beatles

Simon Nugent • 21 Dec 2021

I watched Peter Jackson’s excellent new Beatles documentary (“The Beatles: Get Back”) over the weekend as I flopped around after my Covid booster. It was a masterclass in the creative process and highlighted several concepts I thought would work really well in a work context.

My bent is naturally towards software development but these apply equally to Marketing, Project Management and possibly even Finance (I’ve recently seen some spreadsheets that are works of high creativity – and I mean that in the best technical sense, not implying that they were works of fiction!) Very mild “spoilers” throughout although the key events are likely familiar to most people.

1. Use a deadline to defend against entropy

The whole documentary is framed as a race against time. The Beatles haven’t been working together for some time and physically getting them in the same place with a common goal and a deadline is seen as a way to re-kindle the magic. They are essentially thrown into a film studio with little new material and required to write songs, learn the songs and, as a grand finale, play a live concert before an audience. And we have ringside seats for all of this as the whole process is being filmed.

(L-R): Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon in THE BEATLES: GET BACK
Photo by Linda McCartney. © 2020 Apple Corp Ltd

The conflict between keeping the deadline in place versus their natural perfectionism weaves right through the documentary. They have a “hard stop” because Ringo has other film commitments. We see the deadlines slip a little, we see them move studios. We see them contemplate not doing the live concert but drifting on into a full studio recording session. George in particular seems wary of the live shows.

But this tension, this sense of urgency, is instrumental in them finding their muse. By contrast look at bands who had as much time as they wanted and the resultant quality (cf The Stone Roses’ “Second Coming” which took them five and a half years to complete, but insert your own favourite disaster story). You can see how forces are pulling the Beatles apart and any delay is likely to see all the energy, all their gains up to now, dissipate. The deadline acts a focus, an event horizon that draws them on. It creates a container, an alembic, to distil the creative output.

Similarly, in work projects, the deadline is essential. Don’t be slaves to it but be very, very careful about letting them slip. You risk a massive energy leak.

2. Creep up on genius

With some memorable exceptions (Paul appears to pull the bones of “Get Back” out of thin air), the will o’ the wisp that is genius is not approached directly. Songs are built up slowly by the band coming at them obliquely. They frequently start a session with covers then move on to some of their early work. You can see them deliberately create “bad takes” of the new songs (the scene where they do a rendition of “Two of Us” through gritted teeth is priceless).

It seems to me that they are carefully working out what “good” is; and they aren’t afraid to try “bad” in order to understand the difference. This bravery to be consciously bad is refreshing and in most workplaces I know (including our own) the strong focus is on the good only. I look forward to some experimentation with, for example, a UI design where the instruction to the graphic designer is to make something that is completely hideous!

Apart from “bad takes” they also sing the songs in a number of different genre styles – rock, folk, country, reggae, etc. All the time you can see them identifying what works and what doesn’t work and doggedly zeroing in on the really good.

3. Quality control needs to be external

Although they can find “really good”, one of the big surprises for me was that they didn’t recognise if a track version was great or not. For this they deferred to Glyn Johns and, most especially, George Martin in the studio control room. In the heat of the performance they cannot maintain objectivity so need people outside to assess quality. Of course, over time if they listen back to the tapes again and again they may be able to get that insight but the filtering process that George Martin offers in this regard (that’s good/that’s not good/that’s in/that’s out) is invaluable and one of the reasons he is credited with being “the fifth Beatle”.

Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, and John Lennon in THE BEATLES: GET BACK.
Photo courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd.

This discernment coming from an external source (traditionally the studios) can sometimes irritate musicians but in nearly all cases where an artist is left to quality control their own work it leads to flabbiness and self-indulgence (hello, Prince!).

It is also vital that the external quality control is embedded with the artists and are giving them feedback in real-time. In software development the developers have a tendency to hand over a “finished” cut to the QA team. But using the Beatles’ analogy this is too late in the process. This turns the QA team into album reviewers and doesn’t catch the quality issue early enough.

4. You can’t always be “on”

The issue of what can physically be borne also comes through clearly in this documentary. This is an incredibly intense 21 days and how long the intensity can be maintained is vital. For much of it John looks fragile and spaced out, possibly because of the heroin addiction he was purportedly struggling with at the time, seeming to need Yoko to literally prop him up and occasionally falling asleep. Later he seems very conscious of “his peak” and when he is getting past his peak. The cauldron nature of the project (and here I mean any project) requires a level of physical fitness to endure.

However, even the fittest can’t indefinitely maintain this level of intensity. Certainly in the IT world we seem to bounce from one “mission-critical” project to another (Gartner’s pushing of “the continuous next” is one of the least helpful approaches here) and the human reality is that we can’t do this forever without burning out.

In “Get Back” so much new material was started that they did eventually go back into the studio later that year and nearly all the material on the “Abbey Road” album had its genesis in those incredibly frothy early sessions. We need to learn a cadence where once the intense project finishes we have time to mine the creative output in less intense projects. Beck had an agreement with his studio that he would do one “big production” studio album followed by a quieter, often acoustic album. In the acting world I believe it was Client Eastwood who consciously picked one high-profile commercial film (which paid the bills) followed by one more low-key, arty one.

We can’t always be “on” and we need to build that realisation into our working practices.

5. Share credit around the team

I have a highly competitive nature and I’m not one for giving every child in the race a medal. However, in the documentary the inequality of the four band members is so pronounced that it threatens to torpedo the project.

Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison in THE BEATLES: GET BACK.
Photo courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd.

Paul appears to be doing most of the “Lennon-McCartney” writing whilst John is in a haze. George steps up to become the foil for Paul and they have some of the spikiest interactions in the film. However, it isn’t until John partially resurrects and joins back up with Paul that George leaves. My interpretation is not that Paul tipped him over the edge but that he had a taste of equality but was suddenly pushed back down the pecking order again and that was what he found intolerable. Why should John get the credit when he was hardly contributing anything?

Given the quality of what George was writing at the time - “All Things Must Pass” (never released by The Beatles), “Something” (the second-most covered Beatles song ever), and, very soon after, “Here Comes the Sun” (the most streamed Beatles song) it’s not surprising that he wanted to leave the band when his songs were being ignored. John must have been conscious of this as he is heard to ask the other band members to practice some of George’s songs, to be quiet when George is playing and, after “Abbey Road” came out he declared “Something” was the best song on that album. However, by then the damage was done and George and all his “surplus” songs were off to make a triple solo album that would outsell those of John and Paul.

The construct of the “Lennon-McCartney” song-writing team (and associated remuneration) was inappropriate at this point. It should have been adapted to the new reality. Granting George (and Ringo) equal status and sharing the credit around the team may have done much to defuse tensions (although admittedly maybe still not enough).

We need to keep an open mind about the creativity of our colleagues. We need to recognise that people become more or less creative at various times in their lives and not get trapped into lazy characterisations. We should sense who currently is “in the flow” and give them appropriate responsibility – and credit. That way the whole team will shine.