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A Day In The Lifecyle: What The Beatles’ Break-Up Tells Us About Agile

Beatles

For over 50 years, Beatles scholars have debated whether it was Yoko who broke up the biggest band in history or the rivalry between the song-writing powerhouses of Lennon and McCartney or simply that they ran out of records to break and superlatives to dominate.

In December ‘21, with the launch of 8 hours of previously unseen footage from the so-called Let It Be sessions, in a 3-part film entitled Get Back we finally learnt the uncomfortable truth – that they were destroyed by a botched implementation of Agile.

Reportedly, so struck was director Peter Jackson by how instrumental Agile was in the spiralling discord of their final year together that after a deep dive into DSDM, RAD and Scrum, he flirted with the idea of titling his film “Get Backlog”. But even after all these years, the trauma of those long grooming sessions at Apple Studios was so fresh that Ringo immediately called time on the idea.

Whilst the demise of the Beatles is not an obvious topic of conversation for practitioners of lightweight delivery frameworks, the experiences of John, Paul, George and Ringo offer a useful parable for the long-lasting damage that can be done by Bad Agile; accordingly, the legacy of this wonderful film may be that “Just remember what happened to the Beatles” turns out to be the go-to warning against cack-handed adoption of Agile ways of working.

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In their heyday, The Fab Four were a formidable production line of cutting edge, highly engineered and feature-rich pop. What made them true disruptors though wasn’t just great musical ideas and an iconoclast’s instinct for overturning musical conventions, but also the way they harnessed the potential of multi-track recording methods, introduced in the late 1950’s. Looked at through the lens of project frameworks, they were not so much musical innovators as early adopters of iterative delivery methods. After all, how else to regard overdubbing other than as an early form of Continuous Integration?

It was this approach that delivered such masterpieces as Revolver, Sgt Peppers, Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields and Hey Jude to name just the few that trip off my tongue.

But the Let it Be sessions were different. They were conceived as demo’ing new music for a live show and an accompanying fly on the wall documentary. The whole point was to recreate the raw energy of their live performances at the Cavern Club: no overdubs, no studio tricks, the Beatles, unpasteurised, organic, in their musical birthday suits.

So, when they convened at Twickenham Film Studios on January 2nd, 1969, they didn’t know which songs they were going to develop or what kind of show they were going to mount. Like all good agile projects, scope was flexible, and the development window was timeboxed around Ringo’s filming schedule for The Magic Christian. Supremely confident in their agile instincts, they decided to dispense with George Martin’s tried and tested project management controls and place their faith in teamwork and the beauty and wonder that would emerge from self-management and nimble and responsive working methods.

But, to pun on the name of their iconic company, rather than Apple-shaped, it all went (you guessed it) pear-shaped, and the Beatles found themselves amongst the first recorded victims of Agile Gone Wrong.

Admittedly, this was 1969, the middle of a methodology Dark Age often referred to contemptuously in scrum master lodges up and down the country as Before Agile Manifesto, a time when the canonical ceremonies that give our working lives purpose hadn’t yet been coined.

Even so, there can be no doubt that the Beatles’ many reflections on progress (or rather, lack of it), discussions of blockers and numerous restatements of commitment to the project represent the precursors of stand-ups and retrospectives. But as seasoned delivery managers know all too well, ceremonies alone don’t guarantee agile success any more than blind faith in the principle of All you Need is Love.

To Beatle buffs, the warning signs are clear from the outset. The boys needed enough new songs to fill an album they could showcase in a grand event they could never agree upon, but as the days rolled on, simply couldn’t breathe life into Lennon’s patently sub-par song “Don’t Let Me Down”. Much the same could be said about McCartney’s similarly second-rate “I’ve got a Feeling” which no amount of high-octane rehearsals could ignite.

Frustration, friction, and declining velocity turned the air toxic, culminating in George Harrison resigning his role as lead guitarist and literally walking out of the door barely a week into the project.  His reasons were multiple, but disillusionment born of changing priorities played a key part as ideas for the show ranged from playing in a children’s hospital (so long as the kids weren’t really sick) to the QE2 and an amphitheatre in Libya.

In a series of insightful “what we need is” statements, McCartney, ever the stickler for good governance and sound process, mounted a campaign for the re-introduction of waterfall techniques.

“What we need is a daddy figure,” hippy parlance of the time for Project Manager.

Emphasising the need for proper project management, he went on to make the case for a Gantt chart to track progress:

“What we need is a schedule, achieve something every day”.

Trouble was, it was all too easy for his colleagues to be cynical about Paul’s recovery strategy. After all, here was a 26-year-old who had turned up for work one day burdened only with the certainty that the band needed more and better songs for the yet to be determined show.

With Ringo and a yawning George looking on, he proceeded to thump away on his bass guitar until he chanced upon some chords that took his fancy. When a riff emerged, their ears pricked up. Learning and adapting, the riff became a rudimentary verse and vaguely coherent words soon took the place of the guttural gibberish that had help give shape to the prototype song. Frequent spikes trialling various lyric configurations and various solos resulted in a fully functional song, ready to ship in a mere matter of days.

Anyone witnessing this miracle would regard McCartney’s delivery of “Get Back” as the strongest possible case for Agile music-making and yet, when the magic wasn’t repeated with any other song, PM turned to MSP, even though it hadn’t yet been invented, with his 3rd and most specific project proposal:

“What we need is a serious programme of work”

George, now an increasingly assertive band member, remained a proud advocate for informality or as we might say today, was all in favour of Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Also, as much as he respected his producer namesake, his growing confidence as an independent artist meant he distrusted project management. As he was soon to sagely declare in his masterpiece solo album, surrounded by concrete gnomes, “All things must Pass”. For George, there was no going back to waterfall methods:

“The things that have worked out best ever for us haven’t really been planned. You just go into something, and it does itself”.

John, ever the maverick, sympathised with Paul but could also see George’s point of view. Ringo was happy to go with the majority decision.

The Beatles may have dispensed with their traditional project manager but in this new agile way of doing things, a new face had assumed many of George Martin’s responsibilities. Unfortunately, however talented a producer he may have been, Glyn Johns was a rubbish scrum master. We see many scenes of him diligently removing blockers and doing his best to motivate the team from the control room, but conspicuously doing a very poor job of coaching the band in agile practices and helping to manage their backlog.

With the arrival of whizz kid pianist Billy Preston came an injection of talent and positive energy that did much to relieve the mediocrity of the songs in development and lift morale. New focus was brought to the group’s endeavours and the technical debt of musical missteps that had built up became manageable. Shrinking ambitions for the live show soon matched the limited enthusiasm of band members to make an effort until finally a suitably modest proposal was tabled that all could support.

The rest, as they say, is history and today The Rooftop Concert is, arguably, the most beloved and iconic Minimum Viable Product in the history of Agile. The sheer understatement and down-to-earth musicality of the event has made this one of the great moments in rock history.

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MVP delivered, the Beatles went their separate ways only to reconvene at EMI Studios in Abbey Road, London less than a month later, to begin work on their final and, some argue, their finest album. This time they would play it safe by returning to their iterative ways to create a work of extraordinary technical virtuosity, though the rich feature-set was often drawn from offcuts and half-formed ideas. George Martin was back in control, armed with his formidable bells and whistles to showcase the very best in 1960’s musical production techniques.

Despite the vertiginous musical highs of Abbey Road and the enduring tribute it paid to iterative overdubbing techniques, the damage done to the Beatles as a functioning team by their flirtation with Agile had left permanent wounds which periodically oozed bile throughout the sessions.

In early 1970, The Let It Be master tapes were knocked into something resembling an album by Phil Spector who, it has to be said, was no fan of collaborative methods. The resulting buggy assembly provides an enduring metaphor for the damage a misconceived foray into Agile can do to an organisation’s confidence in lightweight methodologies.

May all those who Come Together in common pursuit of a lean, mean MVP deliver even a fraction of the riches the Beatles bequeathed the world in their all too brief career.

Disclaimer: Readers of this article may recall John Lennon proclaiming “Nothing is Real” in Strawberry Fields Forever but, in fact, all ascribed quotes were extracted verbatim from the 3 Get Back films. As for the rest, best to check with the April Fool on the Hill.

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Paul Holmes is a consultant IT Programme Manager with a background of 30 years bespoke software delivery in a wide variety of industries. He has particular experience of managing troubled projects needing intensive recovery measures and often writes about lessons to be learnt and the pathology of project problems. All perspectives and opinions expressed are Paul’s own.  

You can contact Paul at paul@retrograd.co.uk or via Linked In

 

Paul Holmes
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