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

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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.

At the beginning of October, 1965, the Fab Four had less than two weeks to write a batch of songs for a new album that had to be in the stores for the holiday season. Then beginning October 12 they had four weeks to record the songs, which had to be mixed, mastered, pressed, packaged, and distributed by December 3. What they accomplished under the gun may be unprecedented in the annals of rock: one of the finest and most creative albums to date, Rubber Soul (featured #5 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of "500 Greatest Albums of All Time”), delivered start to finish in two months. (Talk about a "time-to-market breakthrough"!) It included some of their best recordings ever: “In My Life,” “Michelle,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “Nowhere Man.” The band also knocked out a double A-side hit, “Day Tripper”/”We Can Work It Out” in the same period. This team seemed to relish working inside a tight box.

But after retiring from touring the following summer, The Beatles gave themselves from December 1966 to late April 1967 (a veritable lifetime, given their usual pace) to write and record songs for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—which would be hailed as a creative masterpiece by critics (and later rated #1 by Rolling Stone on the same list of “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”). The Beatles, inspired by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album, took a wildly experimental approach (especially in production techniques) in their sessions at Abbey Road Studios, which was now available to them whenever they wanted. One recording engineer complained that the enterprising lads were so hell bent on breaking the rules they would continually tell him, “There’s no such thing as can’t!” The Fabs now seemed to relish working outside a tight box.

So which approach is optimal? Hard to definitively answer in a blog post. But I can say that under most business circumstances where time is of the essence constraints work pretty well—including an aggressive deadline. Yet when a team needs to think outside the lines and do its most expansive thinking and most exploratory work, setting up a looser structure with a more relaxed timetable has proven its worth. Even Jobs himself said that after he quit Apple in 1985 and the pressure was off, "It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life." It seems to depend on how disruptive and revolutionary you want your innovation to be!

I confess I’m a bit prejudiced towards Rubber Soul as a creative product because of its superior song quality. But Sgt Pepper broke the mold in SO many ways—from concept (a “theme” album) to musical arrangements (using a full orchestra and four pianos in "A Day in the Life”) to production effects to cover art—it blew the roof off of what was possible in rock music.

You can read that research study by Amabile, Mueller, Simpson, Hadley, Kramer, and Fleming here.

You can read about bands of the classic rock era that thrived under "constraints" here.


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21 Comments

  1. Knowing who we're trying to reach and how we want them to change will also inform whether we tighten the thumbscrews or take a year-long sabbatical.

    I'm with you: Pepper is awe-inspiring. Soul gets played and enjoyed more. For that round, constraint won.

    Nice to see some deeper biz think in your writing, sir.

    1. Gary, Revolver was a great one. Some say their best. But it wasn’t recorded under a tight—or particularly loose—timeline, so I didn’t use it to make my points.

  2. George Harrison believed Revolver was just more of Rubber Soul. So really a 2 album set. lol

    What I find interesting is that Ringo said anytime they tried to record while under the influence the music was "$h!+" his word not mine. So, they actually were not high as people like to believe while recording.

    Another album you should consider is under all the strife AND time-constraints Abby Road was/is a masterpiece. That too was recorded and released very quickly. And we all have heard how their first album was recorded almost direct to tape sans overdubs/editing (although there were some) it was just like recording their live show. George Martin considered recording their first album at the Cavern Club but the acoustics just weren't good enough so he scrapped that idea. Could you imagine that as their first album? Or even a recording by Martin of that being released today as an historical artifact?

    It seems here you want to make the Beatles a 10 year long recording band. Considering they only recorded from 1962-1970 that indicates it's an 8 year long band. You also mentioned in your other article about the Byrds making 13 albums in 10 years as being an achievement. It is. I won't argue it's not. But the Beatles did 13 albums in 8 years! That doesn't include all their singles or EPs or the extra album called Magical Mystery Tour (which is 2 EPs and a few singles anyway). But since it's an album now, that would be 14 albums in 8 years - mostly original material. AND their 1962 recordings were few - just a couple songs. So really, it's 14 albums in 7 years and considering they broke up after Abby Road and didn't record anything new after one song in January 1970 (I Me Mine sans John) it's actually a body of work which spans 1963-1969 or a total of 6 years!

    Are you being more amazed now? lol

    1. Leo, lots of good points. A lot of bands exaggerated how high they were when they recorded. But McCartney did confess to George Martin years later that they were stoned for a lot of their sessions (beginning around 1966 I think). And Lennon showed up on acid on occasion. Later he (and Yoko) were doing smack too.

      Abbey Road was, for the most part, a quick project. Half of it was recorded in July 1969 though half of it had already been recorded in February and April. (But personally I wouldn’t rate it as highly as Rubber Soul, Revolver, Pepper, or the White Album.)

      After Martin decided AGAINST recording the band live in the Cavern Club in 1962, Abbey Road engineer Norman Smith recreated much of that live sound for their debut UK album, Please Please Me through mike placement, an echo chamber, and elimination of sound baffling.

      The Beatles actually started their recording career in June 1961 with Tony Sheridan, but most people consider their recording career to have begun with “Love Me Do” in September, 1962. Their last recording sessions were January 3 & 4, 1970, with “I, Me, Mine” plus “Let It Be” overdubs. But they had mix-down sessions through May, 1970.

      I count 13 UK albums (from which their American releases came) in 7 to 7.5 years of recording. But it’s still an amazing feat. Nobody in the modern era can match that level of productivity.

      1. If you want to get technical, they started recording in Spring of '58, but really, everything before their Parlophone contract should be considered bootleg. Even "Tony Sheridan with the Beat Brothers" is disingenuous. Once Epstein and Martin became involved, they became a different act altogether, especially when Ringo joined.

        1. It was really the Quarrymen who recorded in July 58 — who bore little resemblance to the later Beatles. At least on the Sheridan recording session it was the Beatles ("Beat Brothers") tho it was a truly lame product. But they were already an exciting live band by then.

          I should add that Pete Best's contribution is often shortchanged. And despite Ringo's talents, it certainly appears that Pete was not replaced primarily for musical reasons, as has been frequently discussed on this blog.

  3. I wonder to what extent pressure really played a part?

    A lot of bands, then and now, go through very fertile and productive periods early in their life. Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Beach Boys in the 60s; Elton, Bowie, Roxy Music, Eagles, Steely Dan in the 70s; Smiths in the 80s. It's as though they become astonishingly invigorated by the excitement of stepping into the limelight. I suspect it's got something to do with deadlines (even if it's an, "I must write this down before the muse leaves me" deadline) but I also suspect it's got a lot to do with the excitement, the exposure to new places and people and ideas etc. Not to mention that they've probably been fermenting ideas in their young head that at last get the chance to come pouring out.

    There's exceptions, of course. Laughing Lenny Cohen is hardly fabled for his fast work rate, spending more time on a verse that Mr. Zimmerman would an entire album - including the time spent recording it! And then there's Axl Rose...

    But with most of them, it does seem that there's almost a pattern of early accelerated creativity followed by a slower, steadier flow. Or even a block, but that's another problem entirely.

    1. Mark, excellent observation. Yeah, it’s possible that the Beatles didn’t feel pressured when they had 6 weeks to write and record Rubber Soul. (I bet George Martin and EMI did tho!) It might have been just another exciting adventure for them. (It’s a thin line between feeling excitement and feeling pressure—or fear.) In fact, in 1963 they recorded their first album, Please Please Me, in one day. (They weren’t doing a lot of overdubs in those days!) As I’m pointing out in my book, bands often operate from a sense of play that displaces the usual fear and anxiety associated with deadlines. So this might explain how The Beatles pulled off the miracle of Rubber Soul—without challenging Dr. Amabile’s theory.

      1. I think other points that have to be considered are i) the attitude of musicians and record companies back then and ii) recording technology.

        Very few acts in the 60's and to an extent the 70's expected to be around for long. The record labels certainly didn't and there was a sense of "making hay while the sun shines" or just downright flogging an act to death before moving onto the next one.

        And recording technology was primitive. Many songs were played live or done with minimal overdubbing so there was much more of an "in and out" attitude to studios. When technology gave us multi-channel, high quality recordings (and home hi fi's could do at least some justice to them)acts started to experiment and then just got plain lazy: the studio went from being the place to record your song to the place to write it / finish writing it / play around with it.

        In fact, as I write this I start to wonder if it's the sophistication of the recording process that has slowed down creativity?

        BTW, re drugs and recording, I remember reading a wonderful (if politically incorrect) interview with one of the Grateful Dead once in which he went through about a dozen of their albums explaining what drugs the band was using at the time and what the impact was on the records. I wish I could recall what they were using when they made 'Aoxomoxoa.' (And I staggered they can!)

        1. Yes, making hay while the sun shines was certainly the M/O of the bands and labels in the mid-60s, especially the Beatles (at first). Ringo, as I remember, considered owning a hair salon in the years ahead.

          In their early years the Dead were certainly consciousness pioneers. When my band opened for them in Torrance, CA, in 1968 they had to stop, retreat to the dressing room, and take a long break after their first song, in order to collect themselves. But as the years went on their psychedelic explorations decreased (except for Jerry).

        2. I think you can blame The Beatles for both of those problems, Mark. They obviously made certain recreational drugs fashionable, and their approach to studio recording would develop by leaps and bounds through the first six albums. It was they who realized that the studio could now become a workshop, to write, arrange, or just develop any musical ideas, once they began recording to 4-track. For moderns, the workshop is tedious and simply time-consuming; for them, it bolstered creativity.

      2. And there's the entire point, John: pressure and stress are perceptions.

        Part of Amabile's point (and I'm not quoting here, just remembering) is that it's not about working quickly or slowly, it's about the perception of "do I have too little time, more time than I need, or just enough time to finish?"

        3rd week of every 3rd month a buddy and I get together online and write 3 songs each. Sometimes, I fly through 3 songs the first day. Sometimes I'm hammering the 2nd song into place on the last night, and the 3rd song never happens. It has nothing to do with the length of time; it's always a week. But sometimes it's plenty of time, and others, it's not.

        You use the right words: time constraints affect our art depending on whether we're feeling fear or we're playing. (Some games have a time constraint built in because it's part of the game, right? Others don't.)

  4. I am a Tom Petty fan and he was talking about recording his 13th album recently in Rolling Stone. I know he has also done Mudcrutch, Wilburys and "solo" projects, but I would have thought he had more than 13 Heartbreakers albums. So he has finally reached the output of the Beatles and only took him since the 70s to do so.

    Surprisingly, he was the best live concert I ever saw. I didn't expect that.

  5. You're missing the bigger picture here. Rubber Soul was about writing introspective songs that most anybody could sing and wanted to because the topics were common and personal. Pepper was about creating whimsical sonic fantasies that not even the Beatles could re-create live.

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