Rock music in the 1960’s and early 1970’s was a major change agent, much like tech companies are now. As new forms of cultural expression emerge around the consumption of the latest technology products (and vice versa), it is no surprise to hear prodigious tech talent referred to as rock stars. Few would deny the charisma associated with uncanny skill in transforming electronic signals into vivid media that influence our lives. Legends are still made seemingly overnight, much as they were a generation ago.
Many of these legends, whether vintage rock stars or contemporary tech entrepreneurs, are as renowned for their talent in forming high performance teams as they are for their individual gifts. Indeed, great legacies often proceed from an ability to recognize talent in others, allocate it optimally, and manage complementary talents which later create multiplier effects.
Powerful tools are available to today’s tech entrepreneurs that were not available to 1970’s rock stars. Crowdsourcing provides unprecedented access to global talent pools not just to organizations, but also individuals and freelancers. Cloud computing puts practically unlimited power in the hands of all its users to collaborate across multiple time zones, and to create markets and distribute their products in short order.
But as much as the crowd and cloud can enable legends to be made, the two by themselves are not enough. The crowd and cloud combine to provide a potent human system, at the core of which are forces of conflict that can be creative or destructive. In either case, the leader needs to manage conflict deliberately, with the same energy and poise as he or she expresses individual talents.
A case study: 1970’s rock star Duane Allman
A particularly vivid case study of how legends are made can be found in the recently published work by Galadrielle Allman, Please Be with Me, a narrative of her late father Duane Allman, the virtuoso guitarist who founded the Allman Brothers Band in 1969. Renowned for an innovative sound that has never quite been duplicated, the Allman Brothers Band engendered the highly successful Southern Rock genre in the 1970’s, and in 1995 were elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility.
Galadrielle Allman’s work yields uncommon insight into the formation of the Allman Brothers Band, and details of the day-to-day grind. Some of her keenest insights surround her father’s leadership abilities. Just as Duane Allman’s guitar work provides lessons for today’s musical talent, so too do his examples of managing conflict contain instruction for leaders of today’s tech talent brought together on the cloud.
Conflict in high resolution
For any highly innovative team, conflict is pervasive and must be managed deliberately, while maintaining a light touch on the free-flowing processes that are the daily fare of a creative team.
Of course, not all conflict is harmful. Many young and creative organizations thrive on teams proposing conflicting ideas and then formatively evaluating them in an apparently chaotic manner. Often these occur in highly clamorous sessions where many good ideas get smacked down by peers, yet usually resolve without personal conflict.
But inevitably, where 99th percentile talent and egos gather to debate their ideas, personal conflict will emerge. Anyone who has played a few gigs in a band, or rolled out a few solutions as a product manager should be nodding profoundly.
Most of us attempt to avoid conflict, and a few actually seek it out in a petty manner. But Duane Allman was fearless about designing creative conflict into the Allman Brothers Band organization. Not content to allow the band’s guitar instrumentation to become complacent, Duane directed the hiring of a second talented guitarist, Dickey Betts, even though Betts’ personality and playing style regularly clashed with other group members, especially Duane.
Nevertheless, Betts was a good organizational fit. The criteria for judging his level of fit were not those so often abused by many creative organizations who aggressively pursue clones of the hiring manager, or superficial congeniality. Rather, Betts was a good fit by virtue of the additional dimensions he brought to the band’s sound, along with the acknowledgment of his tension with Duane, and their commitment to communicate before blowing up at one another.
Duane also believed that two guitars improvising off one another likewise needed two drummers to achieve texture and atmosphere. The Allman Brothers developed such an innovation so successfully that it became a motif that later helped to define the Southern Rock genre.
Galadrielle Allman illuminates another powerful force of her father’s genius: eliminating toxic personal conflict before it damaged the tight ensemble that made the Allman Brothers’ performances so electrifying. Duane was exceptionally incisive in separating ideas from people, focusing creative energy on elaborating ideas rather than controlling people. Long before research bore it out, Duane understood the risk that dyadic conflicts pose to the team, and was especially keen to address tremors along the fault lines long before they became potentially disastrous.
Coming soon to a street near you
Walk around downtown San Francisco and you will see crowds of tech talent dressed like the rock stars of 1969. On warm days, you sometimes hear “Revival” played by street buskers, and “Statesboro Blues” through open storefront doors. With a little imagination, you can transport yourself to the same place in 1969, and be surrounded by young talent seeking to form the next great artistic group rather than the next Twitter.
But snap back to 2014 and you will be sobered by the thought of how many good gigs get wasted on bad conflict, but all the more motivated not to squander the talent in your own organization or cloud community.
Your legacy may depend on it.