What Pink Floyd can teach techies about team building

I recently read Mark Blake’s Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd.

It is, as I said in my 5-star Amazon review, a great book about the history of the band that created some of the top-selling albums of all time.

At its most obvious level, this is a biography of creativity, innovation and business success.

Blake quotes an early Pink Floyd manager as saying, “None of us imagined that decades later you could go to the remotest part of the globe and find cassettes of Dark Side of the Moon rattling around in the glove compartments of Third World taxis.”

But without particularly trying to do so, the book also succeeds as a collaboration case study of a team of extremely creative people working together-and some of the points I drew from reading Comfortably Numb demonstrate that many of the “everyone knows” assumptions about team-building are myths. Or at least they can be.

(All this is particuarly poignant at the moment because, as you probably know, Syd Barrett died in 2006, and Richard Wright died this week. Given a long history of Pink Floyd fandom at the Schindler bitranch-my spouse first saw them play during the Meddle tour-we mourn the loss.)

Hiring Based on “Team Fit” is Over-Rated

The hiring process in any IT department (or, actually, any business environment at all) always puts a lot of emphasis on whether the new team member will “fit in” with the existing culture. While there’s certainly value in that goal (because we all prefer to work with people we care about and understand), that attitude isn’t always right.

As Eugene Nitzer wrote recently in 7 Agile Leadership Lessons for the Suits, teams often need someone to take on devil’s advocate role to avoid complency, or to challenge assumptions that can get in the way of innovation.

Or, as a successful businessman once told me, “When two partners agree all the time, one of them is unnecessary.”

That is supremely evident from Pink Floyd’s history. While most of them knew each other from childhood in Cambridge, and they moved in the same circles in their London youth (such as attending the same architecture college), they didn’t necessarily like one another.

In fact, their history is full of stories about the friction between these supremely talented, creative individuals, as well as their efforts to cope with the increasingly fractious leader, Syd Barrett, and the opinionated Roger Waters.

“I actually walked out of one of the first rehearsals,” says Gilmour. “Roger had got so unbearably awful, in a way that I’d later get used to, that I stomped out of the room.” . . .

“[Syd] was our friend, but most of the time we now wanted to strangle him,” admitted Waters.

In some scenarios, you might consider those the antics of creative prima-donnas who can escape consequences because of their business value (and thus appear like “Eric” in Would You Fire This Person?). But at the time this anecdote took place, Pink Floyd was far from superstar status; their big hit was “See Emily Play,” which had reached #5 on the UK pop charts.

But the team could focus, and for the movie soundtrack La Vallée, they recorded 10 songs in 14 days, despite a whistle-stop tour of Japan in the middle of it all. Says the book, “As Nick Mason would admit later, ‘We had no scope for self-indulgence.'”

The lesson, though, is that to be a business success, “personality fit” isn’t always a requirement – though obviously it sure helps. The ability to get the job done is what matters. Barrett was let go only after he made it clear he could no longer contribute to the team’s success.

“Dark Side of the Moon contains the best songs the Floyd have ever written,” Wright told writer Carol Clerk. “Even though I wasn’t great friends with Roger, there was a great working relationship. To this day, I think it’s sad we lost it.”

Creative Teams Use Limitations and Frustrations to Greater Creative Purpose

The difference between effective teams where people don’t necessarily get along and those that fall apart-or at least this team-is how the individuals turn their experiences (past and present) into the creative work.

As the book says, “Interviewed in 2004, Waters revealed that the inspiration for ‘Echoes’ lyrics came from the sense of disconnection he experienced during his early years in London, and following Syd’s turbulent departure from the band. . . Perversely, despite the icy distance that would develop between some of those writing and performing the music, the theme of communication, of reaching out, would be one the band would return to obsessively.”

All artists use their own experiences as inspiration, of course, whether their art is expressed in software engineering or with a laser light show. But Pink Floyd songwriters transformed their shared painful experiences-not the least of which was references to Syd Barrett on Wish You Were Here-into art.

Expect Creative People To Push Themselves and Others-Sometimes Too Hard

Much of the friction in the post-Barrett Pink Floyd has been laid at the feet of Roger Waters. Yet, Waters demonstrated time and again that he assumed leaderership of the band because he must.

Of his role change in 1969, Waters said, “I took responsibility in the Floyd because nobody else seemed to want to do it. I know I can be an oppressive personality because I bubble with ideas and schemes, and in a way it was easier for the others to go along with me.”

Creative people aren’t always compassionate in demanding the best of others. When Gilmour called Waters to ask for help with the lyrics to “The Narrow Way,” Waters said, “Do it yourself” and hung up the phone. “Which was probably his way of helping me find my feet.

It sort of makes me cringe now,” Gilmour is quoted as saying.

Creative people can set the highest expectations for themselves. Dark Side engineer Alan Parsons, writes Blake, “quickly discovered that the band were rarely given to expressions of outright enthusiasm, even when things were going very well.” Parsons explained, “After an amazing guitar solo, Roger would turn around and say something like, ‘Oh, I think we might be able to get away with that one.'”

Don’t Let the Technology Get in the Way

This last point is possibly a stretch, but one connection between technology teams and Pink Floyd is the distraction of the technology on which they ultimately rely. The band’s mammoth sound and lighting equipment regularly overloaded the power source.

The hardware, at times, overwhelmed the music and limited what the band could do. Especially when they had to get clearance for a floating pig. That ruined a lot of shows, and added extratension to the situation.

How much of this can you bring into your own life as manager or team member? I like to think that it’s quite a bit. Teams that get along well, sometimes too well, can fail to challenge one another to scale new heights. I would like to think that encouraging each other to greater work can be achieved without soul-destroying results (and as a music fan I certainly would have preferred that the band didn’t implode), but the assumption that “we all have to like one another” or “we all have to follow the designated leader’s instructions” don’t always contribute to the greater goal. When a team of creative people all buys into that goal, it’s sometimes best to let them work on their own to achieve it.

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