Work Like A Beatle!
This holiday season the world has received its last great gift from The Beatles: a fly-on-the-wall doc of their Let It Be sessions, now on Disney+. Not only does it portray a hardworking band far from breaking up—it’s a master class in how disparate styles can add up to project magic.
In the third season of his Revisionist History podcast, Malcolm Gladwell explored the unreliable nature of human memory. We tend to remember things less as they actually happened, he discovered, than as we first recount them: it’s easier to remember simplified stories than complex realities.
With the release of The Beatles: Get Back docuseries on Disney+, he must be itching to put out a bonus episode.
For half a century, few have questioned the idea that The Beatles’s penultimate recording sessions — the ones that gave us Let it Be — were pure misery. Audiences saw the companion film released in May 1970 as a portrait of “a once apparently ageless family of siblings, breaking apart.” Which, of course, they just had. How could there be any doubt?
Drawing heavily on 58 hours of film left on the cutting room floor, Peter Jackson’s more balanced take turns that conception on its head. In place of grainy images of morose Beatles we can now see digitally restored scenes of a band working hard to pull itself together — and having fun in the process.
Even Sir Paul, no stranger to the received wisdom that the whole thing was a train wreck, has had to admit that actually, “it’s a bit of a rose garden.”
At first I read such pieces as exuberant overcorrections. On reflection, however, I’ve come to suspect they may not go far enough.
The project we find The Beatles taking on in January 1969 is insane: to write and rehearse 14 new songs before recording them live in front of an audience — for the first time in years — in two weeks.
Nothing will go entirely to plan. Tensions will run high. Timelines will slip. One Beatle will (briefly) quit. The final concert will be on a rooftop, not a stage.
For 22 days the band will end up working as it hasn’t done in years — together. What starts as a dismal experience will ultimately prove positive enough to pull the group back from the brink, indeed back into the studio just three weeks later — long enough to produce not one but two of the greatest albums ever made – before finally succumbing to the exhaustion of a blistering eight-year run atop the world.
In short, as the revisionist Mr Gladwell will surely agree, the project turns out to be a success.
What elevates this from the unlikely to the incredible: they manage to do it all without a manager.
Begging two questions.
- How in heck did they do that?
- What might this teach us non-creatives?
It doesn’t matter whether you work for a Fortune 500 company or a start-up, a non-profit or a sports team.
We all have to deal with under-managed situations far more often than we’d like.
It’s rare to find a team that doesn’t have formal leadership on paper. But variations that render them ineffective arise with astonishing frequency. Many managers play primarily supportive functions, like heads of sales who can’t get in the way of their stars. Matrix structures at larger companies leave multiple individuals “owning” different aspects of the same thing. Dual reporting can create worse headaches, as do special projects. Don’t even mention “co-leads”.
The formal way to resolve issues in such situations is to appeal to a higher up, who often isn’t available. A Fortune 500 matrix may have dozens of intersections —how can a CEO get to all of them? Teams just have muddle through.
When we meet The Beatles in Get Back, the band has been muddling through for almost a year and a half. Since the shocking death of the only manager they’ve ever known, they’ve stumbled from their first critical failure to a disappointing trip to India to a rambling double album John will later write off as “a collection of solo recordings”.
The elephant in the room is Ringo, or rather his temporary departure a few months earlier. That previously unthinkable move has only underlined how each Beatle effectively wields a veto over anything the group d does— including over this “reunion” project.
The first week will definitively demonstrate how not to do it. Paul’s anxiety and John’s apparent apathy will push George to quit.
When they try again five days later, we’ll see an entirely different dynamic.
None of The Beatles can possibly know they’re about to model the principles of a little-known work style framework destined to become one of the most popular management tools of the 21st century — which just happens to have been developed by the same psychologist who created Wonder Woman.
William Marston’s DISC system evaluates individuals along two dimensions — how active vs reflective they are, and how task- vs people-oriented — to map them into one of four work styles.
- Decisive types, active and task-focused, tend to be results-oriented and demanding.
- Influential types are also active but people-oriented, looking to inspire and persuade.
- Steady individuals are people-oriented but more reflective, interested in fostering cooperation.
- Conscientious types are reserved and task-focused, promoting quality through competence and attention to detail.
The goal of DISC is to help teams better understand their dynamics and find areas for improvement. Lots of great ideas with weak execution? Sounds like we need a little less “I” and a little more “D”. And so on.
Technically there’s no “right” distribution of types on a team to assure success. (The assessment says nothing about competence — just because someone values quick decisions doesn’t mean they’ll make good ones.)
Specialist teams may benefit from overweighting in one area. A legal or accounting practice would do well to be overweighted by diligent “C’s”, for example. A nursing station needs more “S”.
All things being equal, however, more balance is better.
And when it comes to Get Back, we can see it work miracles.
On the face of things, the radical shift in mood in Week 2 of Get Back seems mainly due to the better venue and arrival of keyboardist Billy Preston.
On closer inspection, the team dynamic has shifted in subtle ways.
It isn’t just Paul relaxing. Each Beatle steps up to bring a particular focus to the table.
That’s not what the tape shows. Visibly shaken by Week 1, Paul pivots to a different form of decisiveness.
On the one hand, he advocates on the others’ behalf, reminding advisors of decisions that have already been taken (“We’re not going abroad”) and maintaining boundaries (“This is a band decision”).
On the other, he leads by urging John to step up and reminding the others of decisions they all have to make.
As Peter Jackson will observe, in any project someone has to call time and keep things moving forward, or “nothing will ever get done.”
Given his later complaints, it may be a surprise to find John having so much fun, looking to make the others laugh on almost every take.
At first this may seem a distraction — but look again. How else are we to get through the twentieth take of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”?
More to the point, who’s expressing the most enthusiasm for the concert that wasn’t even his idea? Who’s putting his arm around Ringo between takes, dancing around the set, even making fun of his own writer’s block?
Without fun, there’s no way they’re going to see this through.
John may have felt that “the camera work was set up to show Paul and not show anybody else.” Actually it’s Ringo who gets the most screen time.
Why? Because he’s always there. As the others come and go, Ringo shows up on time every day and stays at his kit throughout, playing when needed, napping when not.
Not only is he the reliable force on set. He’s also the one all the others seem able to talk to, to the point of providing his house as neutral territory when peace talks are required.
After the shock he gave the band months earlier, Ringo is now its rock.
As John and Paul excitedly speculate about the possibility of getting a “loan” ocean liner to get an audience to a potential African venue, the Quiet Beatle can’t stay quiet.
“I think you’re bloody mad,” he says. “People won’t even give us a free amp!”
It’s the same pragmatism that led to his infamous fight with Paul days before, when he felt Paul’s haste would hurt their performance. Who wants a bad Beatles record?
Indeed, Peter Jackson singles out George as the Beatle he most appreciates. It’s great to have “crazy genius” driving things forward — but you won’t get it right without a voice of reason.
“George is the kind of guy you want on a film set.”
Does all this truly mesh, as Marston would suggest? Let’s take stock of what this unmanaged team achieves.
Still, in just 22 days:
- The Beatles succeed in recording 400 tracks, including 24 Beatle classics, 12 that will appear on solo albums, and 20 discarded originals. The rest are covers.
- They rediscover the joys of playing together and regain the confidence to play live — while inventing an inspiring new format.
- They buy themselves another 16 months — long enough to release not one but two of all-time great albums — before the feared breakup happens.
- They release a new kind of rockumentary that becomes beloved in spite of itself.
- They produce the material for what may be one of the best documentaries not simply of 2021 — but of all time.
- They kind of invent reality TV.
Of course no small part of this must be chalked up to the band’s incomparable talent, incredible work ethic, and respect for old music and pianos.
At the end of the day, however, it remains undeniable something else is at work — a dynamic that’s not only allowed them to stay aloft three years after losing the man that managed their success, but may well have helped them become great in the first place, and able to keep creating madly throughout the mania that ensued.
That’s something which might inspire not only creatives, but any group that needs to work together, to take a good look at how balanced its work styles are — and what kind of adjustments might be required to make them work even better.
In this light, then, it seems we may add one more item to the group’s remarkable Get Back achievements:
They gave all teams — of any kind — a master class in how to mesh disparate styles into making an at-risk project work.
Thank you, Beatles. You remain the gift that keeps on giving.
We’ll take it from here.