Saturday, March 07, 2015

Innovation Series 1: All You Need Is Love--and Rivalry

This is the first in an occasional series exploring the sources of innovation.

The Beatles are worthy of study for a number of reasons beyond their music. They are one of the most well-documented groups of people on the planet, so it's relatively easy to not only read about them but see film clips of them performing and interacting with each other. In other words, we can reach our own conclusions rather than accept only second-hand reports.

As a result, we can use the Beatles to draw lessons on creativity, collaboration and leadership--all essential elements of innovation and group dynamics. The four were together for their entire ride from obscurity to global fame and fortune, and the four distinct personalities created a spectrum of group interactions from genius collaboration to extremes of pettiness.  While most of our petty jealousies and conflicts are safely obscured from public view, the Beatles' conflicts were all exposed by the relentless spotlight of fame.

In this sense, their conflicts are open to study in ways we often lack even with close friends, whose private arguments and most intimate betrayals may remain confidential.

Exploring the sources of their innovation leads to three questions:

1. How did the social and cultural context of Liverpool in the late 1950s and early 1960s influence their characters, creativity and success?

2. How did three of the four working-class kids from a port city become musical geniuses?

3. What does their complex dynamic of collaboration and conflict reveal about people working in small groups that maintain a remarkably innovative output year after year?

The rivalry and competition between band founder John Lennon and Paul McCartney has long been a central part of the Beatles narrative, and for good reason. Teenager John reportedly hesitated to invite Paul into the group in 1957, as this would introduce a rival for leadership--which is exactly what happened.

But on the other hand, the resulting musical rivalry generated a collaborative competition that spurred both to compose hundreds of songs, working alone at times but also working together.  This competition built the expertise that could only be gained from composing hundreds of songs. Without the rivalry and competition, neither would have achieved what they achieved together.

The combination of competition and collaboration enabled the sum to reach creative heights that were unattainable to the individuals, for a number of reasons.

Few of us push ourselves hard enough to excel on our own; being spurred on by friendly competition pushes us to do our best.

Working intimately with equals filters out our weak ideas; what we accept as "good enough" on our own  is rightly rejected by others as "not good enough."

No matter how brilliant, we each tend to get stuck in ruts.  John and Paul often supplied the "middle eight" bridge for the other's song when the primary composer ran out of ideas or had come up with a weak bridge. The musical tension between the chorus and the bridge was part of the collaboratively written Beatles songs' genius.

But rivalry for leadership pays fewer dividends, and the conflicts arising from Paul's ascent to dominance generated enduring bitterness, pettiness and lawsuits.

The dynamics of leadership are as complicated as the personalities involved, but we can generalize that John always considered himself the founder and leader, and he resented Paul taking control of many aspects of the band after the death of manager Brian Epstein.  George resented Paul's control in the studio and his desire to play all the song's parts himself, leaving little room for creativity or collaboration.

Yet John essentially abandoned the leadership role after Epstein's death, leaving a vacuum that Paul naturally filled. In effect, John wanted to retain his founder's influence, even if he no longer did the heavy lifting of actual leadership.

George tired of being limited to a song or two per album as the junior songwriter, and as his later career showed, he was fully capable of providing leadership when given the chance.

Each of these sources of leadership conflict arose as the result of each individual's core character. Each was simply being themselves, but without an external guiding/limiting hand (in the years of relative harmony, provided by manager Brian Epstein), their characters sabotaged the band's leadership. Competition that was productive musically was not productive in terms of leadership.

Just as John felt the band was always his to lead (whenever he chose to), Paul chafed at the rudderless vacuum left by Epstein's death and George chafed at Paul's innate drive to control everything. Ringo played the part of peacemaker, simply because he had no stake in either the leadership or the creative control.

Brian Epstein was an effective, if limited, manager in the touring years, but once the band abandoned touring and retreated to the studio, Epstein was out of his element and could not provide any guidance or leadership.  In other words, the creative development of the band marooned Epstein's critical leadership role and deprived the band of a much-needed outside source of guidance.

The album Paul tried to lead/control, Let It Be, was a conflict-ridden disappointment; the album that was recorded in the final burst of equal collaboration, Abbey Road, was a triumph. (The guiding role of producer George Martin is a musical equivalent of the business guidance provided by Epstein.)

I think there are multiple lessons about leadership's role in fostering innovation to be extracted from the Beatles' short but vibrant history. Leadership that worked in one phase (John's in the early years of relative obscurity, Epstein's in the glory years of touring) failed when a new phase emerged.  All leadership styles have inherent weaknesses, and these can only be overcome by collaboration and an external guidance that focuses on the best interests of the group.

The Beatles were fortunate to have two such mentor/guides in Brian Epstein and George Martin.  Though the raw ability was present in the individuals, only the magic mix of rivalry, competition, collaboration and outside guidance enabled the individual musicians and songwriters to develop the potential into genius and produce works of genius.

It is easy to forget how young the Beatles were as they navigated the tumultuous years of their fame: they were only 24, 25 and 27 years of age when they recorded the Sgt. Peppers album in 1967.  To expect them to lead themselves without conflict or error through the shoals of ambition and a treacherous music business while retaining their musical genius would be expecting far too much of any mortals.

This essay was drawn from Musings Report 50 (2014). The weekly Musings are sent exclusively to subscribers and major contributors ($50+/year). 

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