This is Part 2 in the series on Change Management | Read Part 1
The Beatles still top the charts with 20 No.1 singles and 19 No.1 albums, more than fifty years after they broke up. So, what can this extraordinary group tell us about culture, change and success?
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
I spent the weekend watching the near nine-hour Beatles documentary Get Back, directed and produced by Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings fame. Apart from being drawn into their world and the spirit of the times, I was struck afterwards by how much their striving towards a common goal—with all the camaraderie and conflict, boredom and brilliance—reflects the experience of any enterprise.
Remarkably, in 1969, when the cameras were rolling, John was the oldest, at 29, and George the youngest at 26. To be a fly on the wall and watch the Beatles at work during the creation of what became the Let It Be album was an extraordinary privilege. Not only did it provide insight into how these genius songwriters did creative work, but it afforded the opportunity to think about creativity and change from the personal to the group, and from the corporate to the world at large.
When I was a kid, the first question people would usually ask about the Beatles is, ‘Who’s your favourite?’ The acerbic John, the playful Paul, the introvert George, or the everyman Ringo? Yes, they were all from Liverpool from working-class backgrounds. Yes, they were all of the generation born to those who had endured the privations of the Second World War. Yes, they were three-quarters of Irish descent and one-quarter English. And, of course, they were all male. But a critical factor of their success was their diversity as human beings. When we hear the clarion call to diversity, we should remember we can be far more diverse within the immutable taxonomies of race or gender as we may be across them.
Despite their personality differences, it was clear the boys had spent an awful lot of time playing together, including the famous string of marathon gigs in smoky Hamburg clubs; the depth of mateship was there for all to see. Even though none of the Fab Four could be considered virtuosos on their instruments, their individual talents, when combined into the greater whole of their songs, made for unique, innovative, and infectiously appealing music. At the same time as there was a confidence in each of them, won through their record-breaking accomplishments, there was also a vulnerability. It seems to me that a characteristic of ongoing success is to be present to your gift for greatness while remaining vulnerable and humble. Watching them in the studio, I never sensed cynicism or hubris.
“A characteristic of ongoing success is to be present to your gift for greatness while remaining vulnerable and humble”
Critically, although the four made a lot of sound during the recording of these sessions, I couldn’t help but notice there was an awful lot of listening going on. Each knew in their way that none could merely manage the others into compliance with their wishes. By this stage of the band’s development, Paul was undoubtedly the most accomplished musician and was a natural leader. His compositions, melodies and arrangements had moved on from the three- and four-chord structures that were the mainstay of their early career. Even though he had a stronger vision for many of the songs, and indeed for the band, he was self-aware enough to know that he had to lead to the promised land rather than dictate his way across it. Each, in their turn, asked the other what they wanted and, importantly, graciously accepted help to complete a musical phrase or think through a change.
It was not all plain sailing, which was good to know, as none of us lives in a Pollyanna world. George was clearly becoming increasingly frustrated. He was the one who least wanted to do a live gig, even though that was the whole idea of filming the original documentary. He was, additionally, clearly frustrated that his creative genius had so often been overshadowed by the Lennon-McCartney songwriting juggernaut. Harrison had his own musical story to tell. As proof, his song ‘Here Comes the Sun’ ranks as number one on the Beatles Spotify charts with over 738 million downloads (at the time of writing), compared to the next ranking, ‘Let It Be’, with just over 418 million.
At one point, Harrison quits the band, telling them on his way out that they should place an ad in the New Musical Express for a replacement. Fat chance of that. Every great team will have highly talented, strong-willed individuals who will feel the need to listen to their inner voice. What left a deep impression on me was how the remaining three confronted the loss and sorrow of George’s departure and their resolve to do what they could to bring him back. We didn’t get to see or hear the conversations between the Fab Four at Ringo’s country manor. Still, the photo they showed of his home was a clear demonstration that these guys had made it a long way beyond the working-class Liverpool suburb of Dingle from which they originally hailed. Whatever the conversations and the surroundings, George made it back with very little residual animosity from anyone. We should all be able to listen, forgive and move forward if we want to accomplish great things together.
“Every great team will have highly talented, strong-willed individuals who will feel the need to listen to their inner voice”
While the central focus was on the core band, many other actors were on this stage, not least amongst them, the redoubtable Billy Preston. It seemed he walked into the recording studio almost by chance, at the invitation of Harrison. Several years prior, they had all been performing in Hamburg at the beginnings of their careers. Preston was a highly gifted keyboard player, and from the moment he was casually invited to play the beckoning Fender Rhodes, there was an immediate uplift in the quality of the music. Not only did Preston provide an essential addition to the sound palette, but his presence had the effect of lifting the game of the Beatles themselves. It was as if they wanted to demonstrate to their protégé the essence of that legendary stuff from which they were made. Sometimes when a team is a bit weary and stuck, it pays to look for a catalysing figure that integrates the parts into a greater whole and invites each to a higher level of performance.
However, the dynamics of the relationships went well beyond those performing the music. Yoko Ono was there the whole time with John, sitting and supporting quietly (barring some all-in shrieking sessions), despite her perhaps unfair reputation for ‘breaking up the Beatles’. George’s Hare Krishna mates hung out, as did Ringo’s girlfriend, Maureen Cox. Paul’s partner, Linda Eastman, arrived with their daughter, and it was heartwarming to see him keep on playing and creating as she clambered over him, sat in his lap, and fooled about. It was as fine an example as I could point to what I mean by work-life integration rather than work-life balance.
And in the background were all the people involved in producing the show—from the long-time roadie who banged Maxwell’s silver hammer on the resident anvil to Alan Parsons, billed as the ‘magnetic tape loader’ who went on to establish a brilliant career for himself as a producer. The film’s director, cameramen and crew were all there giving us all the angles, including microphones hidden in a flowerpot which caught John and Paul’s conversation about George, and a camera hidden at the entrance to the studios which filmed the hapless London Bobbies famously despatched to bring an end to the ‘disturbing of the peace’ caused by the rooftop concert. Of course, the ‘fifth Beatle’, George Martin, was never far away, but on this occasion he was removed from the day to day, filling the role of executive producer.
Then there was the famous performance on the rooftop of their Saville Row building. It all went flawlessly and had the effect of bringing great delight to those on the roof with them, those lucky enough to have a vantage point from their offices and even the people in the street who couldn’t see the performance but were a part of its eternal magic all the same. When the multiple cameras deployed in the street trained on Joe Public, those caught commenting on film spoke for all of us. Even the occasional grumpy old man who preferred quotidian traffic to the last ever live performance of arguably the world’s most popular band. It reminded me that we all have moments when we have to perform in front of a live audience, and if we’re going to “lift off the roof”, practice is non-negotiable. You cannot hope to turn up and deliver the extraordinary without first gaining mastery that comes from repeated practice.
While we might marvel at the music and accomplishments of the Beatles, I was reminded that none of that would have been possible had it not been for the considerable commercial and business resources mobilised to make it all happen. John and Yoko arriving at the Savile Row studios in a big white Rolls Royce made a significant statement about how important money and status was for the whole enterprise. Every time they cut to a shot of Parsons labelling a box filled with the magic of magnetic tape, my mind turned to the supply chain that would be fed from such capture of creative sparks in flight. Post-production at the Abbey Road Studios, distribution to EMI’s record presses worldwide, development of the cover, the promotional materials and campaigns, the logistics of getting the vinyl records into stores across the globe, radio disc jockeys filling the airwaves with these latest sounds. This was, after all, before the age of the internet and the era of instantaneously streaming music to all four corners and beyond. In a free-enterprise economy, free people profit handsomely from bringing the joy of their creativity to the masses.
And it wasn’t as if this change was happening in a vacuum. The historic countercultural revolution of the 1960s marked a turning point in so many important ways. The contraceptive pill had a profound and still unknown effect on women’s choices and men’s attitudes. Martin Luther King had successfully set the foundation for the promulgation of the Civil Rights Act, which promised the end of systemic racism in the USA. By the time Let It Be was released, Neil Armstrong had taken his giant leap for mankind, and the human race had for the first time stepped on another heavenly body to gaze on all of this good Earth. Within five years, the Vietnam War, subject of so much protest during the Sixties, would be over, and, within twenty years, the seemingly impossible demise of the Soviet Union had happened.
The overwhelming sentiment I got from this fantastic documentary can be found in the words of one of George Harrison’s albums, All Things Must Pass. The album’s name comes from ancient wisdom, and this remarkable production reminded me of that in so many ways. It’s a story for the ages, but it’s also a potent metaphor for all of us who strive to express our creative genius, however modest, working in our teams, supported by our organisations, and living in our moment of history. As Goethe had it: ‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it’. Or as in the lyric from the song: ‘Get back to where you once belonged’.
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[Background image: The Beatles, Ij Portwine on Unsplash]
This is Part 1 in the series on Change Management | Read Part 2
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