10 lessons in productivity and brainstorming from The Beatles

Tom Whitwell on 2021-11-28

“What we need is a schedule,” says Paul. “Achieve something every day.”

The first part of Peter Jackson’s epic Beatles documentary Get Back is a masterclass in facilitation and creative management. Paul McCartney tries a stoned, grumpy band through writing, arranging, recording and performing dozens of songs within a short deadline.

He’s using the Design Thinking playbook, 20 years before it was written…

1. The ‘yes… and’ rule

The first rule of improvisation (and brainstorming) is “yes… and”. When someone suggests an idea, plays a note, says a line, you accept it completely, then build on it. That’s how improvisational comedy or music flows. The moment someone says ‘no’, the flow is broken. It’s part of deferring judgement, where you strictly separate idea generation from idea selection.

As they slog through Don’t Let Me Down, George breaks the spell. Instead of building and accepting he leaps to judgement, saying “I think it’s awful.” Immediately, John and Paul lay down the rules: “Well, have you got anything?” “you’ve gotta come up with something better”.

Don’t judge, build.

2. Keep going (until you stop)

Paul is a patient, if reluctant, facilitator. He helps the band reverse out of dead ends: “You know, we’ve just gone round, like, for an hour with nothing in our heads. We’ve been through a lot of permutations. But let’s move… sort of move on now.”And he knows when to stop, ending the painful grind of recording Let It Be when he realises the band aren’t feeling it.

3. Defer judgement

But at other times, Paul, John and producer Glyn Johns keep at it: pouring out idea after idea. Some of them awful — see ‘Don’t be afraid’ below — but most are just technical ways to reframe the problem: play it faster, play it slower, change the order, change the instruments, add repetition, remove repetition.

They never seem to discuss or argue over these changes, they just play it to see if it works.

They don’t judge the idea, they judge execution.

This is a very important distinction that’s the core of the Double Diamond design process.

4. Use rapid prototyping

The deadlines on the project are absurd. They have to write, record and perform an album of songs in 12 days. As Paul says “we’ve got to do it methodically this one… we’ve got to get some system to get through 20–30 songs.”

He proposes a system of rapid prototyping: “We get all the chords. So we can all vamp them all… we play it shitty ten times, and so it’s sort of in there. Then I think we could… play it quite good.”

John and George aren’t convinced. George has been hanging out with Bob Dylan and The Band who lived and jammed together commune-style in Woodstock, New York, with a very different work ethic. The production line approach seems to be one of the tensions that causes George to quit.

5. Embrace happy accidents

In All Things Must Pass, George wrote the line “A wind can blow those clouds away” but John misreads his handwriting as a “A mind can blow…” which stuck.

6. One conversation at a time

One of the striking thing about the sessions is how polite everyone is. Perhaps it’s editing, but nobody speaks over anyone else. Everyone has a chance to be heard, which means people spend most of the time listening, rather than talking (apart from Paul, perhaps).

This is another lesson from musical and theatrical improvisation. The difference between a creative environment and a bunch of people shouting out ideas is the listening.

7. Don’t be scared to be stupid

There are many terrible ideas captured in the sessions — stupid voices, awful lyrics (an anti-Enoch Powell version of Get Back with the sarcastic opening line “Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs”). None of them make it to the final album (apart from Maxwell’s Silver Hammer), but they spark other ideas that do.

It takes a lot of meandering to find something good, but finding the edges — the extremes that don’t work — gets there faster.

At Magnetic we often do a self-explanatory exercise called “Worst Possible Idea” to unblock a tired team.

8. Pretend to be someone else

During the January 1969 sessions, The Beatles played 405 different songs, including their own, from Chuck Berry songs to the theme from The Third Man. Pretending to be someone else is liberating and energising. It lets you lower your defences and relax. In their context, it’s the exact opposite of trying to write a song.

It’s also works well when developing ideas. Forget your own situation and your own limitations and pretend to be someone else: “How would Elon Musk solve this with a $8bn budget?” “What would Gucci do with our product?”

9. Don’t repeat the same idea

Early in the film, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg has an idea. He wants the band to travel to Libya to play at the Sabratha amphitheatre in Tripoli, “torch-lit, in front of 2,000 arabs.

The idea is considered and rejected on grounds of practicality, taste and because The Beatles don’t want to travel.

Every day, he pitches the same idea again, expecting a different response. He gets the same response, every time.

10. Lots of tea and toast

Apart from a few glasses of wine and pale ale, and the fact that John is catatonically stoned for at least the first week, the sessions run on cup after cup of tea and many rounds of toast and marmalade, delivered by roadie Kevin Harrington.

Hydration and quick bursts of energy are always important. The mental changes of pace — thinking, listening, eating, bathroom break s— are often the moments where ideas emerge.

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Tom Whitwell is Managing Consultant at Magnetic, a company that uses experiments to understand customers, helping clients to build better products. We work with The Economist, Mars, Bupa, Condé Nast, National Grid, BEIS, Severn Trent Water and others. You can get in touch with Tom at: tom.whitwell@wearemagnetic.com