Originally published on Forbes.com.
“The thing about U2 songs,” guitarist The Edge told Rolling Stone about the making of their forthcoming album, “is there is no set way they come into being. A couple of songs on the album have literally been like, ‘We’re all together, here’s some chords, let’s see what happens.’ And suddenly, an hour later, there is a song, an arrangement and a recording. Other things, you know there is something great in there, how to make it really count.”
U2’s songwriting started out chaotic because they were four teenagers who didn’t know what they were doing. Nearly four decades later, and despite becoming accomplished musicians, they have held on to their chaotic method of songwriting.
Most bands have one or two primary songwriters who bring semi-completed songs to the rest of the band, who polish them and stamp the band’s sound onto them. U2 is one of the rare bands that initiates the songwriting process with skeletal ideas that they jam, or improvise on, until a song emerges. Or doesn’t. It’s an ambiguous, long, and frustrating process with many false starts and dead ends. It takes patience, commitment and faith.
U2, from left, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Jr., Bono, and The Edge. Image credit: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
Which U2 has. They’ve been through enough transitions as a band – for example from the soulful Joshua Tree to the edgy Achtung Baby and back – to know that as a creative unit, they are most likely to grow by maintaining this improvisational working method. Because it’s worked for them in the past, U2 has resisted the temptation to adopt a more formulaic approach.
Research shows that in other creative domains, significant work comes from a chaotic rather than a structured linear process. A study conducted by Vanderbilt University Management Processor Richard Daft and colleagues compared the process behind both significant and not-so-significant academic research papers. They were trying to shed light on how people generate creative work that is exciting, innovative and impactful. They found that significant research originated with much more uncertainty and excitement than not-so-significant research, which tended to follow a more clear and linear process.
A chaotic beginning did not necessarily result in a significant result. What made the chaotic projects significant was that as they worked on it, the researchers turned a vague and uncertain idea into a project that was more clear, more certain and more methodical. The authors conclude that “significant research begins with disorder but ends with order.”
Writing by jamming isn’t just good for the quality of the outcome. It’s also good for the team. Jamming prevents teams from sliding into autopilot. It keeps them engaged and communicating with each other. When musicians jam, they engage in active listening, not just to what the other person is playing but also how they are moving and what their body language means about their emotional state and what they are trying to express. It requires team members to maintain empathic competence, which is “a mutual orientation to one another’s unfolding,” according to Frank J. Barrett, author of Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz.
When jamming, “musicians have to heed one another closely,” wrote Barrett, “they need to be attentive not only to what each member is doing and saying but also to what no one is doing or saying.” That’s how they provide the composition with what it needs and contribute to the collective effort. Ultimately, jamming is good for teams because it reminds each team member that their contribution matters and that together they can do more than they could alone.
The stakes are high for U2. The band has an impressive track record that would be hard to match. What’s more, expectations seem to be low. In a survey on the fan website @U2, 22% of respondents said they expected U2’s new album to be “okay,” “bad”, or “terrible.” With some reviewers mocking the band for repeating themselves, U2 have a lot to prove. As Bono recently admitted, “We felt like we were on the verge of irrelevance a lot in our lives.”
Creative growth comes from taking risks, from going somewhere new and slightly dangerous, from being on the brink of the unknown. U2 keeps jamming because the sense of discovery is generative even though it’s not easy. “When we’re making the records, it always feels a bit like we’re drowning, and you do wonder if there’s an easier way,” Bono said. “But we seem to need some chaos to bring us together.”
The lesson here is that whether you’re musicians writing rock n’ roll songs, researchers conducting an investigation, inventors working on an innovation or entrepreneurs creating a new business, you’re likely to do more significant work if you embrace some chaos.