Rubber Soul vs. Sgt. Pepper: innovation from a tight vs. loose timeline


Business leaders have different opinions on the right way to get innovative work from a project team: do you set up a tight structure with an imposing deadline or a loose structure with a flexible deadline?

Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer is a big fan of tight timetables and creative constraints which “shape and focus problems and provide clear challenges to overcome. Creativity loves constraints.” Amazon’s Jeff Bezos agrees: “I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do. One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.” Apple's Steve Jobs built a career on achieving breakthrough innovation from teams working under insane limitations, especially impossible deadlines.

In my own work coaching breakthrough teams, I’ve found that giving them an inspiring but difficult game to play—where there’s a clear and compelling purpose, challenging goals, maximum autonomy, but limited resources and a tight timeline—can bring out the best in a team, induce innovation, and produce a business result that far exceeds the norm.

But hold on. Harvard's Teresa Amabile, whose research cannot be dismissed, says that at least one aspect of working out of a “tight box” impedes creativity. A study by Amabile et al., “Time Pressure and Creativity in Organizations,” finds that "time pressure undermines the thought processes that contribute to creative output in organizations.” In fact, according to this research, creativity is associated with LOW-pressure work environments.

When I turn to my own trusted source of business wisdom—rock & roll bands of course—I get conflicting data. The Beatles (a small business team that for me epitomizes productivity and innovation) provide brilliant examples of both high-pressure AND low-pressure approaches. Their Rubber Soul album is the result of the former, Sgt Pepper the latter.


The boogie woogie flu

Word cloud for Disease

From time to time I like to highlight some dates in rock history that convey a business lesson or two...

On July 23, 1979 the new leader of Iran, the Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, called rock & roll a corruptive force and banned it outright. This was just one of many denunciations of rock—beginning with a respected American psychiatrist classifying it as a “communicable disease” in 1956 to the John Birch Society labeling it “communistic” in 1966 to future pope Cardinal Ratzinger deeming it “an instrument of the devil” in 1996. (Rock managed to hit the trifecta: it became a medical, political, and spiritual menace.)

But the moral censure of something—especially in the modern age—only spikes interest in the forbidden fruit. So when the good Cardinal Ratzinger zinged in on particular bands whose songs conveyed "subliminal" satanic influences, such as the Eagles (who knew?), it led many of us to give that band a more sympathetic listen. (Ah, “Witchy Woman”—now we get it.) In the case of Iran, thanks to Brother Khomeini’s sanctimonious outrage, rock became a fixture of the Iranian underground. And the Clash were inspired to write "Rock the Casbah” about it.

As marketers know well, there's no better way to get promo on the cheap than getting the authorities to condemn what you’re doing. Andrew Loog Oldham, the early Rolling Stones' manager, and Malcom McLaren, the Sex Pistols' manager, applied this formula to predictable success. They could always find creative ways to incur the moral opprobrium of the gatekeepers—thus keeping their bands in the news, and selling records. It’s a tad riskier in mainstream business, but retailers like Urban Outfitters and Abercrombie & Fitch seem to be using the very same playbook, intentionally riling up dozens of interest groups with offensive advertising—which isn’t hurting their bottom line.


Looking for the right chemistry — my interview with Chas Newby (part one)

Chas Newby

To put it mildly, The Beatles were a major disruptor in my life.

From the first time I heard them blasting out of my transistor radio one cold winter morning in Arlington, Massachusetts, I was hooked. Nothing was quite the same after that. Within a few years I had abandoned academia (and my nebulous plans for post-graduate study in philosophy and ancient Greek) and was off to California with my college rock band, The Morning.

It was an easy decision to make, given that nearly everyone I hung out with was a musician and was as enthralled as I was by the new musical zeitgeist inspired by The Beatles. After all, rock & roll by the late 60s was something to pay attention to—even as a career—by musically inclined college students. Many of my buddies who were studying for professions in economics, engineering, psychology, or law would have put their plans on indefinite hold if they had found the right band.

That’s why Chas Newby’s story—known to few people—is so intriguing to me. Chas (left in the photo) was a musician who wouldn’t stray from his path to be a chemical engineer. He was invited to sit in as a substitute bass-player by a hot local band that had just returned from months of performing in Germany. After a few gigs, when he was invited to stay on, Chas declined. School came first, he said. The band he turned down was The Beatles.

Here is part one of an interview (edited for brevity) I recently had with Chas.


Playing it unsafe

I’ve always admired businesses that were willing to take serious risks to succeed.

Patagonia, an outdoor apparel company, has done it repeatedly. In 1994, for example, it decided to switch to organic cotton after its founder, Ivan Chouinard, recognized the environmental damage caused by toxic chemicals from traditional cotton. The company bet the farm on it, going a year without profit on cotton products as it searched for new gins and mills. Despite the fact that organic cotton cost at least 50% more, Patagonia successfully made the transition, raising its cotton sales 25% (which also helped establish a world market for organic cotton).

Zappos, the online shoe and apparel shop, realized years ago it had to separate itself from the pack so it instituted a radical policy (at the time) of free shipping even on returns. Though it cost a fortune, that soon became an acceptable marketing expense as sales exploded. Zappos also decided to go for broke on a call center that was fanatically devoted to customers, where enthusiastic call reps would sometimes spend hours on the phone to help a single customer. Zappos has since become the world's largest online shoe store.