Creativity in business with The Beatles. The Beatles transformed the pop song from simple three chord tales of love lost and founded an art form that has defined and redefined much popular music over the last 50 years. They also redefined the music business, retiring from touring in 1966 to spend all their time in the studio working on their art, rather than releasing albums just to increase the price of their concert tickets.
Listen to “I am the Walrus” to hear one of The Beatles’ more complex orchestrated pieces of psychedelic pop.
Here we focus on what leaders can learn from the 3 Ds of creativity: Difference; Dissonance and Discipline.
Firstly, a prologue on creativity in the arts and business. Find out more about this in our books “The Music of Business”, “Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll” and “Punk Rock People Management” on Amazon.
Creativity in business is the thinking of novel and appropriate ideas. This differs from some forms of artistic creativity in so far as some pure artists are unconcerned with the appropriateness of their ideas. This perhaps separates The Beatles from the lone musician in their basement, who does not want or need to reach a market for their art. Innovation is therefore the successful application of those ideas. Successful music artists and businesses are as concerned with the application of their ideas as they are with their inception.
MBA creativity and innovation academic Jane Henry and Professor Charles Handy suggest that creativity in business needs four underlying principles:
- Curiosity – the systematic habit of asking great questions, testing boundaries around problems/opportunities and exploring the big picture and the detail. Artists often have this quality in great supply, business people less so.
- Love – Using a nurturing approach to leadership, participative approaches to generate ideas, and making connections between other peoples’ ideas to build/develop innovations.
- Forgiveness – Includes ambiguity tolerance, the encouragement of mental play and the ability to build on ideas rather than knock them down.
- A sense of direction – Having a sense of a goal or mission, an explicit or understood process for generating, improving, evaluating and implementing ideas and the ability to learn and improve. The skills of direction setting are the ones that are most important for managed creativity and often the ones most absent from artistic creativity.
We now focus on the 3 Ds via The Beatles example. We will return to make the connections with Henry and Handy’s principles at the end.
Creativity rests on difference
The Beatles pulled off the unusually difficult trick of making diversity work, when it is much more common to resist working with people who are different in business. Lennon and McCartney were quite different characters and this can be heard in the songs that they wrote alone. Some of Lennon’s early songs are thought to have been influenced by the loss of his mother at an early age, for example “Help” and “Nowhere Man”. These songs have a kind of beautiful melancholy about them. It is thought that McCartney coped with his loss rather better and tended to write more optimistic songs such as “All My Loving” and “We can Work it Out”. Of course, both had their moments of doing the opposites of these – witness “Hey Jude” and “Another Day” by McCartney much later in his career. Hey Jude was intended to be a message to Lennon’s son after the breakup of his marriage.
Making diversity work in business is much harder to achieve with the tendency to group similar characters together in departments or professions. However, some simple strategies such as effective job rotation, an understanding of the importance of differences and good selection methods can work wonders. It does not always come down to saturation diversity training, which is all too often used as a ‘sticking plaster’ for a more fundamental deficit in the enterprise.
Beatles’ business lesson # 1. Requisite diversity is essential if you are to have an innovative business. Find ways to resolve tensions that build up by putting different people together, but resist attempts to sidestep conflict. The creative leader utilises the tension between opposites whilst maintaining a focus on the goal.
Creativity rests on dissonance
The Beatles were pioneers at combining textures and influences from Indian music, creating a sound that was at that time dissonant to western ears.
Musical note: In music, notes are dissonant when they produce an unstable tone combination. Simply stated, they appear to grate on the ear. In the West we are mostly used to music that adopts the major, minor or blues scales. Indian music tends to use different scales to those traditionally used in Western music. Take a listen to George Harrison’s song “Within You Without You” to hear what I mean.
Whilst it is possible to profit from dissonance in music, cognitive dissonance in business is a term coined by Leon Festinger, used to describe the state of holding two or more conflicting thoughts simultaneously.
Dissonance at work is the silence in the meeting when someone suggests something that is ‘outside the box’ of traditional thinking patterns. Sometimes it can be heard through people talking about other people as mad, bad or evil outside the meeting in the locker rooms and so on. Dissonance in business costs millions through wasted time, missed opportunities, inadequate follow-through of ideas and so on. Gerry Johnson articulated the problems associated with cognitive dissonance at work:
We spend a lot of time at Human Dynamics helping people use dissonance in business in order to create strategies that set businesses apart from the crowd, using a suite of divergent and convergent thinking techniques.
It is a strategy that has helped companies such as Pfizer, Unilever and Johnson and Johnson to succeed, for example in their use of full figured women to promote beauty products.
Beatles’ business lesson # 2. Find ways to listen to ideas that seem dissonant to currently accepted views of your business strategy.
Beatles’ business lesson # 3. Practice curiosity on a daily basis.
Beatles’ business lesson # 4. Delay evaluation of ideas for as long as possible, so that you can put distance between the novelty and a sober evaluation of the potential feasibility and impact of the idea.
Creativity rests on discipline
Contrary to conventional wisdom, creativity is not the enemy of structure and discipline. Quite the reverse. If you are going to write a song that is different, it’s important to mark out the territory in ways that leads the listener towards certain familiar aspects, i.e. a refrain, verse and so on in music. Even in some of The Beatles strangest compositions, we find such devices e.g. “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day In The Life”.
Likewise, creativity without structure and discipline in business does not usually lead to innovation. Take the example of the pharmaceutical company Pfizer’s breakthrough inhalable insulin product Exubera. The product was a brilliant idea, as it provided a ‘no more needles’ solution for diabetes patients. The product failed at the detailed execution stage due to the development of an inhaler that was cumbersome, difficult and something of a social embarrassment to use. Pundits suggested that it looked like a ‘bong’, hardly something you might get out in a restaurant to get your ‘insulin hit’. Inside the company however, it seemed that nobody dared tell the CEO that the device was a ‘turkey’, since he had staked his own reputation and that of his employees on it. Failure to package the product in a way that ‘felt familiar and comfortable’ cost Pfizer an uncool $2.8 billion. That’s the price of hubris, or, as Lennon and McCartney might have sung “Money (That’s What I Want)”.
Beatles’ business lesson # 5. If innovation is your business, make sure that there is enough of ‘the familiar’ about the new to make the innovation attractive to your customers.
Beatles’ business lesson # 6. Avoid hubris in business. It can stop you seeing what is staring you in the face.
In conclusion, The Beatles are a textbook example of Henry and Handy’s business creativity principles in action:
• Curiosity – The Beatles transcended the boundaries of pop music, fusing a number of influences into their music and setting a standard that many others have followed.
• Love – Despite being opposite poles, Lennon and McCartney managed to use the creative tension between them for an extended period to produce music, which probably surpassed that which they would have produced individually.
• Forgiveness – There is considerable evidence that The Beatles used play as a means of creating music for much of their time together. Clearly this became more difficult towards the end of their life as a group.
• A sense of direction – The Beatles clearly had a purpose to be different from the norm of pop groups almost from the outset. It’s probable that the 5th Beatle (George Martin) played a pivotal role in helping them execute their ideas.