Creative Process Lessons from ‘Get Back’

If you get a chance to watch Get Back, do it. It’s absolutely incredible. It’s as close as anyone’s going to get to being a fly on the wall and witnessing The Beatles’ creative process. Here’s a taste:

Of course, as a musician I eat this up, but it also really resonated with me from someone who works on creative projects and thinks/talks a lot about collaboration between the people on creative projects. Get Back is a masterclass in creative collaboration, and that’s despite the band being in an extremely fragile/fraught place at the time it was recorded.

Here’s the lessons I took from it:

Just Do It

What’s the best way to create songs? Pick up instruments and start playing. The Beatles were on a deadline! They were trying to bring an album and TV show to life by a certain date, so they had a lot of pressure to make things happen. They had songs to create, so they went about writing those songs by…playing music together.

But the lyrics weren’t written yet! That’s fine, they just made up some placeholder/scat lyrics. But they didn’t have a bridge! That’s fine, they still got to work on the core song structure. The overwhelming spirit of the entire process is “put something down and start playing with it.”

In my work as a consultant, I bear witness to a lot of sub-optimal (and sometimes flat-out broken) creative process. One of my biggest frustrations is the sheer amount of time people talk about making things versus actually making things. Get to work! You all know how to make websites; get to it. “But we don’t have the requirements yet.” Who cares! I bet you $10,000 your site will have some form of header and footer; get to work making those. “But we don’t have the copy and ‘creative’ yet.” FPO images and lorem ipsum are your friends; get to work. “But designs haven’t been approved by the stakeholders yet.” Oh my god, just get to work. There is so much to do. Code can and should be written Hour 1 Day 1 of a project.

What’s the best way to make websites? Start making websites.

True Collaboration

While it’s possible for one band member to generate more ideas than others (Paul is clearly in a leadership position throughout the filming and its clear he’s really keeping the band from imploding), the whole band is required to make a Beatles record, so it makes sense to get everyone in the room together.

Of course, in order for code to be written Hour 1 Day 1 of a project, front-end developers need to actually be a part of the design process. I’ve long been shouting “Death to the waterfall!”, and that entails having front-end developers in the room (so to speak) with UX and visual designers to formulate ideas, provide feedback, and to do some front-end prep chef work in advance so the team can actually collaborate.

That’s right, developers, you are the Ringo and George of this process. And guess what? You have valuable ideas that are worthy of consideration. Despite the Lennon/McCartney powerhouse famously pushing Ringo and (especially) George out of the songwriting spotlight, Get Back makes it clear all band members are true collaborators that shape the work in meaningful ways. The same is true for web developers and other team members.

Collaborative Iteration

No idea is fully formed out of the gate. The Beatles’ music has a timelessness to it and it almost seems like these songs just fell out of the sky in their completed state. Get Back shatters that perception and pulls back the curtain on how much iteration happened in order to bring their songs to life.

The creative iteration aspect of the documentary to me was the most exciting, and I think there a ton of lessons to take away:

  • Hit it from different angles – They’d play ragtime/double-time/slow/high-pitched/low-pitched versions of the same song. While on one hand they’re just goofing around, they’re also using those exercises to uncover the “true” version of the song. It’s so incredibly fascinating to watch.
  • Respect and a focus on making great work – While the exchanges were sometimes heated, the band members demonstrated a true respect for one another as they went about perfecting the songs. They focused on the work and not the person, and each band member could serve as an important counterbalance to help smooth out weak spots and evolve ideas until they clicked.
  • The importance of play – The band was on the verge of breaking up (hell, George left the band in the middle of this), but it’s amazing to me how much the band continued to crack each other up and goof around. They kept each other interested and used humor and lightheartedness to overcome the personal tension and deadline pressures.

This stuff is so incredibly applicable to the web creative process. First of all, how much time are we actually given to play and explore? The answer: not enough! Have you ever been on a project where people’s egos get in the way or people are too precious about their ideas? Of course you have. And have you ever been on a project that is Strictly Business? As a goofy-ass individual who often helps shape the vibe of the team, I take pride in creating working relationships that

Bringing in additional support

Perhaps no character in the whole documentary is more awesome than Billy Preston.

Billy Preston to the rescue!

He shows up with a beaming smile and a willingness to play, explore, and support. As soon as he enters the picture, the whole Beatles dynamic changes; everyone seems reenergized and recommitted to the work. His presence is extraordinarily transformative, and it’s not that hard to imagine that the project would have fallen apart if he weren’t involved.

This resonates with me as a consultant. I love how me and my team jump in and join forces with my clients’ teams to give them a real and noticeable boost. And I’m not just talking about accelerating the work (although that’s certainly the case); I’m talking about serving as a positive force to (re)shape the vibe of the project and provide fresh perspectives that help our clients’ teams do their best work.

The tedium of polish

I started my university career as a music major with a strong interest in recording engineering. But I changed majors in part because I realized recording engineering involved listening to the same song (or more like 4 or 8 bars) over and over and over and over and over again. It’s tedious and hard.

Once many of the songs were written, The Beatles headed over to Abbey Road Studios to record the songs in earnest. A long stretch in the documentary subjected us to about 30 takes of “Get Back”. As a viewer, it started to feel tedious, and it almost certainly was from the band’s perspective. But hey, that’s what’s involved to produce some of the most iconic music in the history of the world.

It takes a lot of discipline and commitment to bring something over the finish line. The fit and finish of a creative project is something that often falls by the wayside, but is so incredibly necessary. Dotting i’s and crossing t’s can feel tedious, especially at the end of a project when everyone’s nerves are frayed, but it’s that extra detail that separates great work from good work.

Get Back (to work)

As you can see, I think there are a ton of lessons for doing great creative work on display in Get Back. There are so many opportunities to foster real collaboration, and I’d love to see more of it in our work.

Dan and I have been talking about our collaborative process for years. Which hey! We have a brand new workshop with Dribbble all about fostering collaboration between designers and developers! Sign up and we’ll guarantee you’ll be collaborating with Beatles-like gusto.