Startups: embed improvisation into your innovation culture

In January 1969, The Beatles gathered to rehearse for an album, a live show and a documentary. The pressure is on to find their creative mojo – to write fourteen new songs and perform them live, in two weeks’ time. This the story at the heart of Get Back, a 468 minute deeply affectionate documentary of the band by Peter Jackson, assembled from sixty hours of footage from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Let It Be documentary, along with 150 hours of audio recordings.

It was released late last year, but at just under eight hours long I’ve only just finished watching it. Get Back is a beautifully intimate portrait of the band at a crossroads, between sticking together or breaking up. It captures the alchemy of their collaboration before your very eyes. There are many learnings for startups regarding team dynamics, the vitality of improvisation, and how talent combined with hard work produces something of value.

It’s fascinating insight into the famous pop stars asking for sarnies, talking about last night’s television, and generally mucking about. In-between, it focuses on the song-writing process, the ad-hoc and incremental nature of creativity, the slow chiselling of songs rather than Eureka! moments. There are endless band meetings that go round in circles. They candidly admit they are in the doldrums, missing the guiding influence of their late manager Brian Epstein, and it doesn’t flinch from the micro-tensions between the four.

A lot of the running time is four friends enjoying making music together, often just playing for play’s sake, or mates desperately trying to make each other laugh with a silly voice or word-play. Get Back is also a tribute to the musicianship of the band and a potent reminder of the power of the songs. In half-finished states, the tunes still amazed me.

The film ends with the famous concert on the roof of Apple HQ. Using split-screens to capture the band in action, interviews with people on the street who can’t see the performers and the attempts of young coppers, wearing helmets with straps too short for their chins, to get the gig shut down. They’ve finally got past Apple’s decoys on reception and climbed the stairs to the top floor.

The scene they encounter is extraordinary. Apart from anything else, who’s in charge of health and safety? The whole thing looks unbelievably precarious. People are perched on ledges, slipping down roof tiles. There are cameras and cables strewn everywhere. In the midst of the chaos, The Beatles themselves are having a ball. the simple joy of playing a gig is written all over their faces.

The police don’t know what to do, they don’t seem to have the appetite to bring proceedings to a halt. They’re not sure whether they’re witnessing a breach of the peace or history being made. John’s joy that the rozzers have arrived is priceless.  It’s a big, bittersweet ending – it’s the last time the band played for the public. It’s a great spectacle, albeit you know the poignancy of it being a sad finale.

Get Back highlights the strains that would soon splinter the band, a natural death caused by outgrowing a group formed when they were teenage friends: John’s drug use and devotion to Yoko; George’s frustration with being underestimated as a songwriter; Paul’s sometimes domineering attempts to keep the trains running. There’s a lesson there for spotting the potential cracks in founding startup teams.

Ultimately, though, it’s much more rewarding to analyse how The Beatles blossomed and why they burned as brightly as they did during their decade of innovation, evolution and reinvention than it is to obsess over why they imploded. Get Back is an extended, singular look at the act of creation, both the magical moments when inspiration strikes, and the more arduous work-at-it sessions when tenuous sparks are fanned into flames.

This is an inside view of the world’s most celebrated band at a hiatus, and so, instead of consigning Get Back to my towering pile of completed content, I keep turning it over in my mind as to the lessons for startup improvisation, so here are my five takeaways from the fab four.

1. Team dynamics Paul has the most ambitious vision, the most indomitable work ethic. Get Back makes clear that while Paul’s controlling tendencies were pissing off George and John, they were also the impetus for the Beatles to be where they were and doing what they did.

We all know what Lennon was really like – caustic, sarcastic and difficult? But the Lennon we see here is a delight. John just turns up, sometimes a bit late admittedly, and gets on with it. He seems fully committed. He’s funny, generous, always ready to help sort out a line in a song that Paul’s struggling with, happy to pick up any instrument, polite to whoever brings him his umpteenth cup of tea.

Not surprisingly the Beatles have lots of associates. The standout associate is Billy Preston. What a ray of sunshine he is. From the moment he joins the sessions, things start coming together. Billy looks as if he’s really enjoying the music, his upbeat positivity immediately makes the rest of the group feel better about themselves.

Takeaway: You need to sweat and invest in the team dynamic, it can happen spontaneously, but reflect on the individuality brought to the collective; bringing in ‘outsiders’ to refresh the team is a good tactic, they bring a new perspective, new skills and help refocus the direction with their catalytic thinking to support improvisation.

2. Use creative tension to ensure you don’t settle for second best. The film has its tense moments. The group were disintegrating, they weren’t at each other’s throats, but there were certainly some ‘issues’, yet the overall mood is creative and collaborative.  It’s a revelation how gentle the bandmates are with one another. Paul’s quarrel with George over the guitar riffs in Two of Us best showing this. The sessions were not marred by shouting matches but rather a series of smouldering hurt feelings and strangled misunderstandings.

Paul’s compulsive musicianship is everywhere evident, taking over even the arrangement of John’s best song, Don’t Let Me DownIt should be different beat and all onto light things and cymbals; and of the bridge, coolly reminds John That’s a weak bit of the song, that. The twinship between Paul and John, the core of the band, remains intact even when John seems disabled by drugs, and Paul testy in his presence, jokingly asking him to pay attention in a way that makes it plain Paul isn’t joking.

Curiously, the music does not always improve with work. When the tension eases, it enables the songs to become more settled and certain, ready to be played in public – an example of this is when the band tries out, and later suppresses, a lovely call-and-response backing vocal to Don’t Let Me Down. And on the final day of filming, with everyone exhausted by the pressures and tension of the sessions, Paul demos a mesmerising first version of Let It Be.

Takeaway: Creative tension in a team isn’t a bad thing if it can be harnessed and doesn’t become all consuming. Recognise its existence, and know when to let it play out, and when to step in and curtail its influence.

3. Intentionally improvise Paul’s talent as a musician dominates, but he does so mostly by cajoling and including rather than by insisting, and you can see he is doing it for the band, not his ego. The sequence in which Paul, playing full chords on his bass, a difficult thing to do, composes Get Back in less than four minutes is stunning.

He starts with a minor-key wail, interesting in itself, then finds the familiar chord pattern of the song.  George mutters inwardly, and on his Telecaster instantly answers with a sharp, upstroke riff; Ringo starts clapping out the rhythm. Then John walks in, late, and without saying a single word, listens for two minutes and then immediately finds the A dominant-seventh chord on his Epiphone electric rhythm guitar, and casually starts filling out his part.

Watching them muster Get Back out of thin air, led by Paul, is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s a truly magical moment, but it just happens – you realise they are in the process of writing Get Back in front of our eyes.

Takeaway: As George says, You just go into something and it does it itself. Whatever it’s gonna be, it becomes that. The improv sections of the film offer true insight for startups into the new product development process.

4. Don’t let deadlines compromise innovation Hours of guys painfully constructing new tunes, through hours of repetition and the testing of tentative lyrics, all the while mildly bickering and talking past one another in a broth of warm memories and clouded quarrels.

They are heroically dedicated to coming up with new material. Apart from the songs that make it onto the Let It Be album, we hear snatches of several unfinished songs that will be on Abbey Road. It’s as if they never stop writing, haunted by competing with their own previous masterpieces.

Time is pressing, but The Beatles remain unperturbed. They know they’ll come up with something memorable. They’re not bothered about deadlines. What deadlines? This is where Paul’s strengths come to the fore. He chivvies the others along. He’s constantly pushing things forward. His mentality, he explains, is that he likes to achieve something new every day, and that’s his focus.

Takeaway: Hold your big vision whilst taking baby steps, get your hands dirty as an improvisation practice shaped by disciplined entrepreneurship, where innovation outcomes not deadlines are your goals.

5. Humility spurs creativity All the creativity is achieved with a modest amount of self-consciousness, self-praise is understated in the extreme. George’s approval of Get Back is muttered to himself; Paul’s The Long and Winding Road, a genuinely great song, but when he showcases it, nobody really comments; when Paul brings in Let It Be, it is greeted only by more workmanlike playing from John, and some gentle mockery of its pious opening words.

The Beatles work first, praise modestly or not at al. It sounds lovely, that, now, George eventually says of Get Back, and they all moved on. This isn’t about talent, it’s humility and working collectively. The genius of The Beatles happens between Paul and John, not inside of either of them. Paul wants the group to be excited, that’s his fuel, and his practice is simple: bring the work forward, play a song before it’s ready, because in the moment before it’s ready, that’s when it’s ready.

Paul shows humility by bringing music that’s half-baked to the table, he takes a risk. It means that George might become critical or mopey, John might not be engaged, the room might not feel it. But the risk is worth it, because the half-baked work, shared in a trusting environment, is the fuel that created the works of genius. And it begins, as it usually does, by having the guts to share something that’s half baked, and put yourself out there.

Takeaway: a creative team is one in which praise is made second to the work, and one in which work retains all the dignity of praise.

The magic depicted here is an intoxicating spontaneity, bathed in the incandescent creativity at the nexus of ’60s culture. As with many teams, the initial spark faded. When George walks out saying he’s left the group, Lennon observes George said he didn’t get enough satisfaction because of the compromise he’s making to be together. It’s a festering wound that we’ve allowed, and we didn’t give him any bandages.

Lennon then walks out of the room, and Paul sits back in his chair and says and then there were two as his eyes fill up with tears. It’s too much. A chronicle of stunning creation that speaks for itself, leaves you with a wistfulness of what might have been.

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