The Beatles and the art of teamwork

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PAUL IS STRUMMING his guitar in a studio in London. George yawns and Ringo looks on listlessly. John is late, as usual. Suddenly, magic. A melody starts to take shape; George joins in on his guitar; Ringo claps out a beat. By the time John arrives, The Beatles’ next single, “Get Back”, is thrillingly recognisable.

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“Get Back” provides both the standout moment and the title of a glorious new documentary by Peter Jackson, charting the days that the band spent together in January 1969, writing and recording songs for a new album. For anyone interested in music, pop culture or creativity, the film is a stocking filled with treats. When George is struggling for a line to follow “Something in the way she moves”, John has advice. “Just say whatever comes into your head each time—‘attracts me like a cauliflower’—until you get the right words.”

Executives should watch it, too. The question of what makes a team sing is a staple of management research, and the Beatles documentary is a rare chance to watch a truly world-class team at work. It reinforces known principles, and adds some of its own.

Take the role of Ringo, for example. When he is not actually playing, the band’s drummer spends most of his time either asleep or looking bewildered. When the other three musicians bicker, Ringo smiles beatifically. To a casual observer, he might appear dispensable. But musically, nothing works without him, and as a team member he softens conflict and bridges divides.

Psychological make-up matters to how teams come together. Academics at Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that the performance of groups is not correlated with their members’ average intelligence, but with characteristics such as sensitivity and how good teams are at giving everyone time to speak. Ringo provides backing; the band would be less cohesive without him.

Another principle reinforced by the film: look here, there and everywhere for inspiration. In a study from McKinsey, more than 5,000 executives were asked to describe the environment in which they had their own best experiences of being in a team. Among other things, the consultancy identified the importance of “renewal”, the habit of keeping staleness at bay by taking risks, by learning from others and by innovating.

“Get Back” shows a team of superstars embracing exactly that ethos: playing the songs of other bands, grabbing ideas like magpies and happily taking the advice and help of outsiders. It is the introduction of a pianist called Billy Preston, known to the group from their early days playing in Hamburg, which really makes the recording sessions start to click. (Let’s make him the fifth Beatle, suggests John. “It’s bad enough with four,” sighs Paul.)

A third message of the film concerns when and how to let it be. In an effort in 2016 called Project Aristotle, Google tried to define the characteristics of its most effective teams. One of its findings was that goals ought to be “specific, challenging and attainable”.

When they first meet up, on the second day of 1969, the band has a task that fits these criteria snugly: to write an album’s worth of new songs in just a matter of days and perform them on a TV special. But how they get there is left largely to them. That doesn’t always work out. At one point Paul yearns for a “central daddy figure” to set them straight on their scheduling. But the combination of a deadline and autonomy yields remarkable results.

There are limits to what can be learned from “Get Back”. The Beatles are not always supportive of each other—George, feeling disregarded by John and Paul, briefly quits the band. Drugs played a part in their output: LSD may be a red line for some managers. Although technical ability is not the only determinant of success, sheer talent helped. Any band with a Lennon, a McCartney and a Harrison in it would have an advantage.

But one wider lesson comes through loud and clear. The Beatles love what they do for a living. When they are not playing music, they are talking about it or thinking about it. They do take after take of their own songs, and jam constantly. Managers who think that building esprit de corps requires a separate activity from work—here-comes-the-fun time, set aside for axe-throwing or GIF battles or something equally ghastly—are missing a fundamental point. The highest-performing teams derive the greatest satisfaction not from each other, but from the work they do together.

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Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:

The shortcuts to Theranos (Dec 11th)
The office of the future (Dec 4th 2021)
How to manage the Great Resignation (Nov 27th 2021)

This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Teamwork and the Beatles”



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