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 / Spring 2006 / Issue 42(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Beatles Principles

Lessons about teamwork and creativity from the most successful band in history.

Illustration by Lars Leetaru
Entrepreneur Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, is known for building creative, motivated teams. He insists on “fun” as a key element of any new enterprise. When I mentioned this to a senior executive at a large investment bank, he shook his head and told me, with a mixture of remorse and bravado, that his company had once been fun, too: “We’re a bit more like the military now, and too big for that stuff. We marshal the people and grind out the deals pretty mechanically.” He glanced at his beeping BlackBerry, mumbled an apology, and shot off somewhere, leaving behind a last remark: “There’s not a lot of fun left.”

Too many people in business feel that way. And the more they lose sight of the fun and camaraderie in their business, the harder it is to deliver performance.

But there is an example of a team that learned to deliver the highest level of performance while having fun on a legendary scale. Not coincidentally, it’s the most successful team of our time: the Beatles. Richard Branson has fun, but his outsized personality and high-stakes gambles make it hard to follow his example. The Beatles were great artists and entertainers, but in many respects they were four ordinary guys who, as a team, found a way to achieve extraordinary artistic and financial success and have a great time together while doing it. Every business team can learn from their story.

If we want to understand the Beatles’ relevance to management teams, the place to start is February 9, 1964. On that night, the group made its American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in front of what was then the largest television audience in history. The black-and-white clip of that performance is now a pop-culture classic. Before a theater full of screaming teenagers, the four young musicians — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr — are relaxed and confident as they kick into “All My Loving.” Ringo’s drum kit is elevated above the stage — then an unusual arrangement — so that he is as much the center of attention as the other three Beatles. It’s an ensemble of four equal players, not a flamboyant lead singer with his backing musicians. They’re all smiling. They’re having the time of their lives. If ever there was an antidote to the malaise of “grinding it out mechanically,” it was visible on the stage that night.

The Beatles are a noteworthy example because the whole of their accomplishment was so much greater than the sum of its parts. The reasons are evident in the way they worked together as a team; how they collaborated to write their songs; the techniques they used to enhance their innate creativity; and the approaches they used, for most of their time together, to defuse the inevitable tensions that arose among them.

The magic was far more than just the music. There are, in fact, specific strategies — I call them “the Beatles Principles” — that you can use to re-create a bit of the Fab Four’s juju. If you have to field teams of high-performing professionals, or if you’re trying to improve your organization’s teamwork, creativity, and capacity to connect with customers, here are four principles to work and play by.

“Eight Days a Week”
When the young Beatles first hit the top of the U.K. charts in 1963, with “Please Please Me,” they seemed like an overnight sensation, but they weren’t. Behind their seemingly effortless playing were thousands of hours logged performing together in the clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg. This face time forged the individual Beatles into a cohesive, tightly knit team that Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger called, enviously, “the four-headed hydra.”

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