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Rock Bands as a Model for Workplace Teams

10/04/2013 10:24 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014
  • Ruth Blatt I write about the intersection of rock n' roll and business
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"The rock star is some kind of primitive. An idiot savant who can't really function in the world and would rather get onstage and do something wonderful and entertain people." -- David Byrne, Talking Heads

At a Los Angeles recording studio, two members of a band announce that they are taking a break to go to the bathroom. "That's marvelous," responded their producer sarcastically, "Bring me one back, will you?" Sure enough, within a few minutes Anthony Kiedis and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers walk in with a pizza tray topped by their steaming turds.

This scene from the rock n' roll world may appear to have nothing to do with your work reality. As David Byrne observed, rock stars act like idiots. Many admit that they suffer from Terminal Adolescence. There is no shortage of material on the off-stage antics of musicians. The glimpses we get show us that when they are not being total idiots, rock stars are tortured and aloof. Brushes with the law, whether real or exaggerated, reinforce their rebel image and disdain for social institutions and authority.

Given how rock music celebrates the disorderly and forbidden, it's not surprising that when we face a managerial dilemma -- insufficient output, stalled creativity, low employee morale -- we don't think to turn to organizations with names such as Butthole Surfers, Rage Against the Machine, or Meat Puppets for answers. We don't often think of rock bands as the businesses they are. As Irving Azoff, legendary member of the rock establishment, with bands ranging from Guns N' Roses to New Kids on the Block under his management, told Rolling Stone in 2003, "Rock & Roll has always been anti-establishment."

We don't imagine the members of the Sex Pistols sitting with their manager around a conference table coming up with their marketing strategy -- how they should do their hair, what they should wear, what their lyrics should be about, what the experience of their shows should be like -- even though that's exactly what they did. We don't think about thrash metal band Slayer choosing opening acts based on their potential to increase the tour's profitability. Yet as Slayer front man Tom Araya reminded a journalist in 2008, "The idea behind the tour is to try and sell tickets, to fill those seats." We don't think about how Mick Jagger applies his degree from the London School of Economics toward running the Rolling Stones or how Alice Cooper consciously identified a niche, the villain, filling a gap in a music scene dominated by heroes. As for counter-cultural heroes The Grateful Dead, Joshua Green wrote in The Atlantic that they were

anything but naive about their business. They incorporated early on, and established a board of directors (with a rotating CEO position) consisting of the band, road crew, and other members of the Dead organization. They founded a profitable merchandising division and, peace and love notwithstanding, did not hesitate to sue those who violated their copyrights.

We have more to learn from rock bands as organizations than we realize. Take team longevity. Research in organizational settings has consistently shown that when the same people work together, they get less creative and innovative over time. Whether they are developing modems in a high-tech startup, discovering new medicines in Ivy League universities, or producing a Broadway musical, teams whose business is to be creative all face a similar fate: over time, they run out of fresh ideas.

But some bands keep on rocking. The Flaming Lips, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Slayer, The Cure, U2, AC/DC, and Aerosmith have been together more than 30 years, and the Rolling Stones have been at it for more than 50. They are organizational anomalies, as shown by a 2005 study published in the journal Science. Researchers from Northwestern and Stanford University analyzed data from 2,258 Broadway productions and more than 80,000 academic research collaborations in the fields of Social Psychology, Economics, Ecology, and Astronomy. They found that unless they changed personnel, teams became less productive and less creative over time. In other words, this large-scale study found that teams decline over time.

Yet unlike Broadway musicals and academic collaborations, where each event offers an opportunity to assemble a new team, most people work with relatively stable teams. There may be some turnover, but for the most part, you have to continue delivering the goods with the same group of people. What the Science study highlights is just how little we know about sustaining team success.

This is where my research on rock bands comes in. In the past few years I have gone behind the illusions of rock music creation to explore how rock bands function as creative teams. And I am writing a book in which I present lessons from rock bands for sustaining success in other kinds of business teams.

Here are some questions I have for you: What bands do you think are exemplary teams and what would you like to know them? What do you think makes them different from other bands and accounts for their ability to stay together and stay creative? Write your suggestions in the comments below, on my Facebook page, or on Twitter.

About Ruth Blatt

Ruth Blatt writes about the social science behind rock n' roll music. She has a Ph.D. in Management and Organizations from the University of Michigan and taught Entrepreneurship to MBAs at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She has been interviewing dozens of bands, managers, and other industry professionals for a book about teamwork lessons from rock bands. Follow her on Twitter @RuthBlatt and visit www.theRockBandProject.com for more information.