Manage Like A Beatle! (Super Deluxe Edition)

Source: Apple Records, DiscProfiles.com

1. The Project

The day after New Year’s, 1969. Four members of a pop group gather on a chilly soundstage on the edge of London to begin work on a near-impossible project: writing, rehearsing and recording a 14-song album before a live audience—in two weeks.

The Beatles are already on shaky ground. Sixteen months after losing the only manager they’ve ever known — the charismatic Brian Epstein — they’re feeling anxious and rudderless.

“Daddy’s gone away,” observes Paul, “and we’re on our own at the holiday camp.”

The group’s attempts to manage itself since Epstein’s demise have yielded mixed results. They’ve stumbled from their first critical failure (the yawn-inducing Magical Mystery Tour holiday special), to a disillusioning India trip, to the rambling “White Album” that John will later describe as “a collection of solo recordings.” Ringo has even made dubious history as the first to quit the band—albeit temporarily.

So here they are, not six weeks after their latest release, setting themselves a new, breathtakingly ambitious target.

How much method there is to this madness is up for debate. The strategy seems straightforward: to work once again as a unit rather than each other’s session musicians, while yet again doing something no one has ever done— another day in the life of the world’s most innovative band.

Yet the execution has been complicated by an unexpected “opportunity”, the free use of a Twickenham studio (where they made A Hard Day’s Night and Help! just four years earlier), courtesy of producer Denis O’Dell. The catch: they only have it for two weeks, after which O’Dell will need it back for his next film, The Magic Christian — along with its co-star, Ringo.

Without realizing it, the band has taken an already daring bid for revitalization and turned it into a time-boxed pressure cooker.

No one’s even sure where the concert will be. Add a muddle of supporting characters — including a barely-tested director (Michael Lindsay-Hogg, whose main qualification is a Rolling Stones special that won’t air for another quarter century), at least one too many producers, and the omnipresent Yoko Ono — and the stage seems set for history’s greatest band to bring its stellar journey to an inglorious end.

2. The Question

Everyone knows where the story goes from here. Or do we?

Fourteen months later, in April 1970, The Beatles will indeed break up.

The artifacts of this bold effort— an album and companion film — will finally see daylight the following month, with its working title suggesting revival (Get Back) ditched in favour of the swan-songish, Let It Be. While the record, remixed by a producer who never graced the studio, features moments of joy, the film will come off as a funeral. Glum-looking bandmates playing ear-straining versions of yet-to-be-loved songs in a dark room while barely talking to each other: what could this be other than a portrait of, as The New Yorker puts it, “a once apparently ageless family of siblings… breaking apart”?

Reality is not so simple. While virtually everyone involved will soon buy into the narrative that the sessions were as miserable as they look on screen, The Beatles are somehow inspired enough to reassemble just three weeks later at Abbey Road, where they will record a final album many will come to see as their best. But in 1970, no one can be bothered to explain the apparent paradox.

Fast forward half a century. On December 16, 2020, in a New Zealand dressing room, director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) meets a nervous Sir Paul to reveal what he’s discovered watching digitally restored outtakes from these sessions— 58-odd hours of film, along with almost three times that much audio — that have been sitting unwatched in the vaults at Apple Records.

His verdict? Sure, there are moments of tension, and yes, George quits for a few days. But it’s far from the mythological portrait of a desperate McCartney bossing his bandmates. Five days later, Jackson releases his “sneak peek” to the rest of the world — and the world is pretty much blown away.

Get Back — as Jackson’s new docu-series cut from the material will be named— is a tale of anxious head-butting that gradually morphs into largely joyous cooperation. While not all roses, even a surprised and relieved Paul has to admit “it’s a bit of a rose garden.”

Yet the lessons of the Get Back project extend far beyond being yet another cautionary tale about the unreliable nature of memory, straight out of Malcolm Gladwell.

Watching the series now streaming on Disney+, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that perceptions became coloured by the painful year that followed — not least struggles to get an acceptable mix of the album, the depressing cut of the film (which drew almost entirely upon the sessions’ chaotic first week) and the split over new management that would eventually land the band in court.

What may be most remarkable is that the whole exercise does NOT end in disaster. That the project in fact meets most of its lofty goals — and then some.

Indeed it would seem the real question is: how the hell did they pull that off?

3. The Challenge

Bear with us now as we descend — only for a moment, we promise, and with wondrous dividends— into a bit of business speak.

Few challenges are harder to overcome than the one with which The Beatles came in to the project — indeed, with which they’d been struggling since the loss of Brian Epstein — the absence of good project governance.

“The Fab Five”, 1963 (Source: Getty Images)

Governance can be a bit of a fifty-cent word. What it basically means is a system for making decisions, especially timely ones.

Weak governance is far more prevalent than most organizations would care to admit. The problem is especially rife in matrix structures, common among Fortune 500-size companies, where two or more managers find themselves accountable for the same area — for example, a national marketing director and a regional head of sales.

It also pops up on so-called “special projects” executed outside a standard management hierarchy, often in partnership with other entities. Some appoint a project lead whose role, like that of the hapless Lindsay-Hogg, is more administrative than executive in nature. Worst of all may be the dreaded appointment of “co-leads” representing various groups, whose only option when they can’t agree is to appeal to their respective bosses — or flail.

In this light, The Beatles hardly make things easy on themselves as they embark upon their fateful 1969 journey. From its opening hours, it’s crystal clear who’s in charge: no one.

On the plus side, the group is entirely open to outside input, patiently giving audience to any idea their advisors feel inclined to pitch. But by the director’s own plaintive admission, none can actually tell the band what to do.

The problem is compounded by the group’s lack of internal structure, which leads it to be perpetually, frustratingly non-committal. Rattled by Ringo’s erstwhile departure, keenly aware of their own insecurities, and openly missing “Mr Epstein”, the band is less a democracy than a fragile coalition. The ever-present spectre of flight risk conspires to give each an effective veto over the whole proceeding. The afternoon George walks out, the rest of the band plays on — but they know they aren’t making a record.

Every new proposal regarding where the mooted concert might happen— from a magnificent ruin outside of Tripoli to London’s Primrose Hill to the very space in which they sit — is entertained with a mix of nervous jokes, furtive glances, and lines in the figurative sand (neither Ringo nor George want to leave England). Paradoxically, given the coming mythology, the restraint is most evident on the face of a baffled and briefly tearful Paul. What does everybody else really think? How far can I speak my own mind? And who thought it would be a good idea to film all this?

The impasse is relieved rather than broken. A pair of band-and-spouses meetings at Ringo’s house helps. So does the move to a better studio at Saville Row. The final ingredient appears to be the arrival of an old friend from their Hamburg days, keyboardist Billy Preston, whom John will credit with, like a houseguest, “putting everyone on their best behaviour” — and also makes everything sound better.

This does not solve the four-way veto problem. But it does push it into the background. Gradually the members of the band who aren’t named Paul become more comfortable bringing their own personal leadership styles to the table — all but a textbook example of how great teams work.

4. Work Styles: A Crash Course

In October 1941, DC Comics unveiled a superhero unlike any the world had seen: one that wasn’t a man.

Wonder Woman was the brainchild of psychologist William Marston, who felt the era’s children needed stronger female role models. But she was only the most recent of his contributions to modern culture. Years earlier, Marston’s research contributed to the development of the polygraph lie detector. And just before that, he’d developed a behavourial model to help individuals of different dispositions work together more effectively — which would ultimately inform one of the most popular HR tools in 21st century business.

The DiSC system assesses individuals along two dimensions — how task- vs people-oriented they are, and how outgoing vs reserved— in order to place them into four basic personal/work style categories.

  • Decisive individuals are outgoing and task-oriented, and tend to be results-oriented, confident and demanding.
  • Influential types are also outgoing but people-oriented, looking to inspire and persuade with charisma and energy.
  • Steady individuals are people-oriented but reserved, interested in fostering cooperation by projecting calm, caution and sincerity.
  • Conscientious types are reserved and task-oriented, promoting quality through competence and attention to detail.

Marston’s model remained fairly obscure until the 1950s, when industrial psychologist Walter Clarke developed a self-assessment test to help individuals map themselves on a DiSC “wheel”, along with a suggestive colour.

The DiSC Wheel (Source: Salesbox)

It’s unlikely that The Beatles or any of their retinue every heard of DiSC. The tool did not really take off until the 1980s, when it was adopted a new generation of business leaders looking to accelerate productivity. Few cared about its alleged lack of predictive power. The draw — which has continued to attract managers to this day — was its utility as a framework for optimizing team dynamics.

To understand this appeal — and DiSC’s remarkable power to explain what went right on the Get Back project — we should first note two caveats.

  1. While individual DiSC assessments have proven to be remarkably stable — once mapped onto the Wheel, one’s position has only an 11% chance of changing — they have no bearing on an individual’s ability to perform. Loving music does not make one a great musician. Likewise, just because someone values “conscientiousness” does not, in fact, make them competent.
  2. Perhaps more critically, there is no “optimal” distribution of DiSC personalities on a team that assures success.

Let’s pause on that second one. By nature we tend to assume that balance is good, and that — assuming a reasonable level of competence — an effective team should include representation from around the DiSC wheel.

A bit of common sense reflection should suffice to persuade us that such is not the case.

To start, most every team needs one— and usually not more than one — Decisive individual, who can cut off debate and keep things moving forward: a leader.

After that, the right mix of other types depends more than anything on what the team is being asked to deliver. A finance and accounting department would presumably do well to be overweighted with Conscientious types, focused on getting the details right. A sales or marketing team needs a lot of Influencers, to attract customers. A nursing station needs an extra share of caring Steadiers. And so on.

That said: over the course of my two decades in business, as a consultant, executive and entrepreneur, I’ve had occasion to work with more and less balanced teams. Yes, too much “D” energy begs trouble, at least when not aligned. All things being equal, however, I’ve come to suspect that more balance is better — and that when it isn’t natively available, when there isn’t great governance, team members can improve their output by stretching to achieve it.

Which is exactly what we see in Get Back.

5. “Typing” The Beatles

If you’ve already watched the series, you don’t need a blow-by-blow account of how things play out. If you’ve yet to do so, it would be a disservice to rob you of its gradual revelations —not even the early moment where a noodling Paul, waiting for John to show up, writes the riff to “Get Back” in less than two minutes. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself. It’s incredible.)

Let’s not overcorrect here. It would be a mistake to declare the whole thing an unqualified success. Every rose garden has thorns.

George continues to get short shrift even after his return to the fold, despite the flourishing creativity that will lead to arguably the greatest solo Beatle album the following year. John shows signs of the heroin addiction gripping him and Yoko (they’ll famously go “Cold Turkey” a few months later). Paul is clearly unnerved that the others are considering representation by the dubious Allen Klein (which will lead to his 1971 lawsuit against them).

What matters for present purposes is the contributions to the project’s ultimate success made by each of the band’s members — and the uncanny way this appears to be driven by each evolving to play one of the four classic DiSC types all but to a T.

Decisiveness: Paul

Let’s start with the Elephant in The Room: the allegedly domineering Paul.

“After Brian died… Paul took over and supposedly led us,” John later declared in a legendary Rolling Stone interview. “But what’s leading us, when we went around in circles?”

This post-facto assessment — combined with similar takes from George — quickly became accepted as accurate.

But John’s own description speaks volumes. How could the group end up going in circles, if Paul was being too dictatorial?

Get Back puts Paul’s role in a more nuanced light: rising repeatedly to the unenviable task of forcing decisions, as evenly as he can.

As Peter Jackson has observed, in any project someone has to call time on debate and keep things moving forward, or “nothing will ever get done.”

Occasionally Paul pushes too hard. Look no further than George’s departure. (Plus, everyone hates Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.)

After that episode — and arguably before — Paul makes a concerted effort to strike a balance.

On one hand, he keeps reminding the others of decisions they have to make, positioning his own voice as simply one of four. He goes out of his way to distance himself from the role — at one point telling John privately “you’ve always been our leader” , and openly grieving his helplessness to inspire John and George . he gives producers somewhere to focus.

On the other, he consistently advocates on their behalf, reminding advisors of decisions that have already been taken (“We’re not going abroad… Ringo doesn’t want to go”), voicing the group’s concerns (“We’ve become a bit shy”), and placing bounds on their input (“This is a band decision. We’re the band.”).

In short, he’s plays the Decisive role the group needs. He’s the one producers can focus on, to whom they first pitch the rooftop concert concept as a compromise to the group’s seemingly incompatible requirements; he takes it upon himself to sell it to others; and that seems to work out pretty well.

Influence: John

Given the militant and uncompromising reputation John later acquired, it may be a surprise to think of him as the group’s lighthearted, inspiring force.

Yet that’s exactly how he emerges in Get Back. As the humorous moments on the Let It Be album reflected, hardly a take passes where John is not looking to lighten the mood, to make the others (particularly Paul) laugh, to turn the high pressure exercise into something enjoyable.

At first glance all this may look like a distraction — but look again. Who’s putting his arm around Ringo between takes, and making the umpteenth take of Paul’s “Two of Us” almost bearable? Who takes George’s compositions most seriously? Who expresses the most enthusiasm for the concert that wasn’t even his idea? Who’s writing nonsense verse, sharing self-deprecating jokes about masturbation, and frequently dancing around the set?

Most telling may be the way John handles a couple of sidebars with Paul. On set he makes light of his own writer’s block. Later, trying to bridge the gap between Paul and George, he suggests he can be just as bossy as The Cute One.

In short, without John, none of this is very much fun. And without fun, how will they ever see it through?

Steadiness: Ringo

Fans called Ringo The Funny One, and he is (“Morning, everybody. Morning, Camera!”).

Unlike John, however, he’s not simply trying to crack wise.

Throughout, Ringo takes on the job of being the steady, reliable force who is always on set for the shoot.

He’s the one band member who shows up on time every day—rock stars are not used to being at work at 10am, it would seem. He’s also the one who is always at his kit, ready to play, as the others come and go — playing fills as need, taking naps when not. (Indeed, despite John’s later suggestion that “the camera work was set up to show Paul and not show anybody else”, it’s Ringo who appears to get the most screen time.)

Moreover, he emerges as the “safe” one for the others to talk to. His house is the neutral territory on which the others can meet to work out differences.

Sure, he speaks his mind on the concert plans (in principle, of course, but nowhere crazy), but then trusts Paul to represent his views. Toward the end of the sessions, as the others fret about a perceived lack of material, he somehow manages to pull Octopus’s Garden out of nowhere. (It’s only the second and final song he’ll ever write with the band.)

After the shock he gave his bandmates the previous summer, Ringo is now their rock.

Conscientiousness: George

Pressed to name which Beatle he most appreciates, Peter Jackson doesn’t hesitate.

George is the pragmatic voice of quality and reason, he insists: “the kind of guy you want on a film set.”

He backs this up by noting two moments.

First is the famous argument, featured in both Let It Be and Get Back (though only the latter provides due context), where George pushes back on Paul rushing him.

“Both of them are right,” Jackson observes. While Paul’s committed to 14 songs in two weeks, George is just trying to get the song as good as he can. No one wants to make a bad record.

The other comes when producers raise an issue with playing in Libya: what about an audience?

As Paul and John wildly speculate about solutions — including securing a free loan of the newly-launched QE2 ship to bring in fans — George urges sanity. “I think you’re bloody mad,” he opines. “People won’t even give us a free amp!”

These episodes and other like them illustrate the critical value of the Conscientious team member. It’s great to have “crazy genius” driving things forward, as Jackson puts it. But every team needs someone to care about quality, and call BS on dumb ideas.

Every team needs a George.

6. The Short and Winding Road

The rest, as they say, is history.

The Beatles will push themselves — and their crew, and their life partners — far beyond anything they signed up for. Twickenham will have to be escaped. Self-imposed deadlines will slip. The final concert will play out not on the stage of a jaw-dropping African amphitheatre, but on a freezing rooftop above an unseen Saville Row lunch crowd.

The recordings themselves will prove to be a mess, the band shocked by the first rough mix they hear in May and in full agreement not to release it.

After that experience, plus an equally harrowing screening of the first film cut, John and George will retrospectively decry the entire project in print and song — a dark lens through which the whole world will come to see it.

The dust will not truly settle for another half century. For only after Jackson’s more faithful reconstruction will it become evident how much it actually achieved.

Consider:

  • In 20 working days the group succeeded in recording almost 400 tracks, including 24 that would be released and received as classic Beatles records, 12 that would appear on celebrated solo albums, 15 other originals they would never develop — and over 300 covers.
  • They rediscovered the joys of playing together as a band.
  • In Billy Preston they came as close as they would ever come to adding a fifth member, and signed him to their label.
  • They regained the confidence to play live audience once again, inventing an original format that would inspire numerous imitations.
  • Already fearing dissolution, they bought themselves another 16 months — long enough not only to finish one but two of their best albums — before finally breaking up.
  • They released one of the first rockumentaries — which, for all its shortcomings, became beloved.
  • They filmed the raw material for what may be one of the best documentaries not simply of 2021 — but of all time.
  • They did all this without a manager.

It would be a stretch to suggest The Beatles intended to create “a how-to manual for all creatives”, as some have suggested.

Others might emulate their work ethic, their flexibility, their judgement, their respect for old music and pianos.

But let’s face it. Talent may be something we can develop with hard work. But it still starts with an ineffable spark of musical genius, without which all we have is virtuosity. It’s why it’s so hard to listen to or watch anything these guys did without using the word “magical” — with the possible exception, ironically, of that mystery tour.

Still. It remains undeniable that the Fabs’ countless gifts to the world now include an unprecedented (naturally) and entertaining (of course) masterclass on how to make a wavering project go right.

And that, as we’ve seen, how much of that success can be attributed to the distinctive, complementary styles that each individual brought to the table, allowing this never-to-be-matched powerhouse to power on at least a little further.

Indeed, it may well be that this balanced mix played an essential part in making them Fab in the first place. For if work styles don’t really change, would this not have been the dynamic that helped them make it big in the first place?

That’s a question for another day. In the meantime, do yourself a favour, and enjoy the show.

Getting Back, January, 1969. (Source: Apple Corps)

Stephen Butler is a management consultant at Framework and co-founder at Rimrock Advisory Partners.

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