Originally published in Forbes.
When Bruce Springsteen first heard the rap metal band Rage Against the Machine, he didn’t imagine he would one day include their lead guitarist in eight tracks of one of his albums. Yet that is exactly what happened with Springsteen’s newest offering, High Hopes, released today. “My cousin Lenny [Sullivan] was a huge Rage Against the Machine fan,” Springsteen told Rolling Stone. Tom Morello came to a few Springsteen shows, and the two musicians hit it off. Eventually Springsteen suggested Morello come up on the stage and play on a song. In 2008, Morello joined the E Street Band on “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” “The place exploded in probably one of the loudest crowd responses I’ve heard in all the years we’ve been playing,” Springsteen said. “It was just like something explosive happened.” It got his attention.
The mix of styles worked, despite the two artists coming from such different musical traditions. Yet getting to the point of making an album together took five more years. How do two people with such different styles collaborate on a creative project together?
According to Springsteen, their approach was, “Let’s put our feet in the water a little bit here and see what happens if we take that place where we intersect.” Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello spent time playing together on numerous stages, discovering their common musical and ideological ground. They became fans of each others’ music. They discovered they were both children of Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck. They were both passionate about making powerful music on things not being right with the world. When they were apart, they sent each other tracks, recording on top of each others’ work.
Research on creative teamwork refers to this process as “induction,” where group members interact to figure out and agree on their common ground and approach from the bottom up. Throughout these interactions, individuals bring their unique identity, or personality, into what ultimately ends up being the groups’ identity.
Induction is extremely important for people to be creative together because it allows them to navigate the fundamental tension between expressing their individuality and being part of a unit. An experiment conducted by University of Queensland professor S. Alexander Haslam and colleagues found that when individuals were prompted to think about what they have in common with other people in their group, they were more likely to stay engaged in a creative and challenging project. When group members were prompted to think about how they were different from each other, their motivation waned as the group project became more difficult.
The opposite of induction is top-down team assignment. We don’t usually get to pick who we work with, which is why most teams are actually less creative than individuals. As Edwin Land, co-founder of Polaroid, said, “There is no such thing as group originality, group creativity or group perspicacity.” But that doesn’t have to be the case. If teams have the opportunity to go through induction, they can do more together than they could apart. Two experiments reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that people with widely divergent personalities were able to jell as a group when they had induced a shared identity but not if the shared identity was imposed on them top-down. Without a strong common identity, groups are less likely to get excited about their work together. Less energy translates into less creativity.
In music, there are countless examples of groups that are more creative than the individuals within them. As I’ve written before, when lead singers of successful bands go solo, they usually fare poorly. Even singer-songwriters need their collaborators. When Bruce Springsteen fired the E Street Band in 1989, he thought he would be more creative. But the two albums he released without them were commercial and critical flops. So in 1999 he called them up, tail between his guitar strings, and asked to work with them again.
Springsteen and Morello realized that they could do something together that they couldn’t each do on their own. “He took that music and jolted it into the now,” Springsteen said of Morello. Morello, on his end, came out of the process inspired to create his own solo album. “The first time I ever sang with an electric guitar in my hands was ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ at the Anaheim Pond in 2008. Until then I’d kept my folk singing career and my electric guitar shredding career completely separate,” Morello told Billboard.
By looking for, and finding commonalities, Springsteen and Morello both grew as artists.