What we can learn from The Beatles about creativity and leadership in a remote-first world.
I’ve just finished watching the incredible Get Back Beatles documentary on Disney+. It follows the Beatles as they create, record and perform their final album ‘Let It Be’ in 1969 and is a 7.5 hour masterclass of creative brilliance from arguably one of the all time high-performing teams.
The film got me thinking…what can we learn from John, Paul, George and Ringo to promote creativity in our organisations and is our new remote-first world actually working against us?
The Long & Winding Road (…To Our Goals)
At the start of the film, we see the band come together and discuss their goal; to write, perform and record a new (and final) album in a few weeks before the band member’s other commitments are due.
The original idea is to record the album live in front of an audience on a set built in a TV studio. As the first week passes, we see the band reject the idea because it doesn’t “feel right” and alternative ideas for the album begin to flow. This includes doing a gig in the Houses of Parliament or on Brighton Beach, to the most extreme idea of shipping out two thousand fans on a boat to Libya to watch a candlelight performance at the Roman Amphitheatre in Sabratha.
Ultimately, the band achieve their goal of performing and recording a new album but instead of the TV studio, the performance infamously takes place on top of the band’s studio in London. This rooftop idea is born out of the journey of working towards the overall goal, rather than it being thought of and agreed before they started. It evolves as part of the process and is bought into because it comes from the band themselves.
As leaders, it’s our job to agree on ambitious goals and deadlines with our teams and then trust them to deliver. It’s our job to provide them with everything they need to succeed then get out of the way. We need to accept that the original ideas we have will likely change as the team go on the journey of delivery but, as in this case, that could lead to even better results.
Come Together (…To Create)
For most of the film, we watch the band hanging out together, enjoying themselves whilst playing their instruments seemingly without purpose. They’re having a bit of a laugh, playing with ideas, trying new things and covering other people’s songs for fun. It seems chaotic.
However, out of this chaos and open-ended play we start to hear the beginnings of now legendary songs being born and teased out before being developed into the finished songs that we still love to this day. It really is amazing to witness how it happens.
Watching this reminded me of how important it is for us to spend quality time together with our team in person. We’re missing out on so much context and non-verbal communication in our daily video interactions that’s leading to a team-building and creativity crisis.
In a 2021 study, researchers at Microsoft came to the following conclusion when studying the effects of remote work on collaboration and communication:
Our results show that firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts. Furthermore, there was a decrease in synchronous communication and an increase in asynchronous communication. Together, these effects may make it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the network.
Working remotely exclusively, not only do we lose the opportunity to be present with our team mates and “jam” together like The Beatles did, but we’re making fewer new connections too. It’s like an ageing brain that is making fewer synapses and slowly declining in ability and performance.
I’m not advocating a return to the office five days a week here, but as leaders, it’s our responsibility to ensure a balance between quality in-person time and convenient remote working. It is our duty to ensure the human connection is not lost, to ensure new connections are being made, to ensure the collective brain doesn’t slow down, for both the sake of our team mates well-being but also our organisations.
Let It Be (…& Go With The Flow)
Some of the band’s best recordings that make it to the final album happen when the band are in a state of flow.
If you’ve never heard of a “flow state” then put simply, it is a way to describe the times when you are “in the zone”; you are completely engrossed and focused on the task at hand that it feels like time dissipates and you are unstoppable.
A number of times in the film, John Lennon asks the group to repeat the same recording of a song they’ve just done as he’s “feeling it”. This is John Lennon saying he’s in flow and wants to capture the peak performance before it’s over.
Flow state is something to treasure and protect in our teams at all costs. Imagine (oh dear) if Paul McCartney was sitting at the piano, starting to tease out those first few chords of ‘Let It Be’ and suddenly has to stop because he’s due into his next meeting about a totally unrelated topic. This is exactly what is asked of most of us day in, day out.
I know that all of my best work comes when I’m in a flow state and it’s something I try to cultivate personally as much as possible. I believe in the concept so much that my wife and I are sending our daughter to a Montessori nursery, where flow-state is a core principle in how the kids are encouraged to develop and grow. Some organisations take this so seriously that they now have ‘meeting-free weeks’ to help their teams get into flow states and tackle the big challenges on their roadmap.
In my opinion, finding ways to help your teams to get into a positive flow state regularly is one of the most important responsibilities of a leader. How can we design our time to encourage flow? What can we as leaders do to prevent our teams flow from being disturbed? One for another blog post probably!
Hey Jude (…Try Something New?)
(OK that one is bad, sorry!)
One final thought that struck me whilst watching the documentary was how the band swapped and played different roles. Paul McCartney switching from bass guitar to piano, John Lennon filling in for Paul on Bass and George Harrison taking the lead vocals. This seemed to happen naturally between the band members, with no rule to say who must do what because thats what their defined role is.
Having regular opportunity to switch roles and try your hand at something new is so important for our fulfilment, growth and happiness, but does this happen regularly? Without those opportunities to go and pick up the bass guitar, would we ever learn to play it?
Are we all playing our pre-defined part more often now that we work remotely? I think so. This is probably because it’s easier to manage a team this way. As leaders, we need to be mindful of this trap and we should be actively carving out opportunities for our team to try new things, to play a new instrument.
We Can Work It Out
So how do we Get Back to doing the right things to really get the most from our teams? Especially when we are now essentially ‘online first’. Here’s a few things we can focus on:
- Give people the opportunity to stay connected and interact with other team members
- Create the time and space for people to get creative
- Encourage a deeper focus by scheduling ‘flow time’
- Challenge our people to grow & develop professionally through experimentation
I’ll be working on these areas with my teams over the coming months as we try some ideas to see if they help us improve. I plan to document the journey as I go and also write some future posts that deep-dive into some of the areas I’ve discussed, such as ‘Flow’. Hit the follow button to be notified when they are published!