The Problem of Too Much Talent

This week I needed some distraction from things that are keeping me busier than usual, so I was very happy when this CD arrived in the mail.

Jellyfish are a hugely underappreciated band, and Stack-A-Tracks – the instruments-only backing tracks from the songs on the band’s two albums – just reinforces how magical it was when Jason Falkner, Andy Sturmer, Roger Joseph Manning Jr., and Chris Manning worked together. Some fans argue that what sunk Jellyfish’s career was the onslaught of grunge music in the early 1990s. Clearly grunge wasn’t the place for four guys dressed in 1960s psychedelic gear and playing melodic power pop – but I’d argue that what ultimately doomed the band was that it contained too much talent.

Falkner left when, despite being a brilliant bassist and multi-instrumentalist,  he got tired of mostly having to play guitar; Chris Manning left because while he loved playing music, he didn’t like touring. Sturmer and Roger Manning completed another Jellyfish album with the help of guest musicians, but eventually stopped working together because of “creative differences”.

 

It speaks to the amount of talent in the band that all of its members have gone on to do many other interesting things, on their own and with other musicians. (And two of them, Falkner and Roger Manning, are playing together this summer, in Beck’s touring band.) Jellyfish was exceptional while it lasted, but in my opinion one band could never be artistically big enough to accommodate all the abilities and ideas of each of Jellyfish’s members.

Another band that broke up because of too much talent was 10cc. Most people in North America would know them for their single I’m Not In Love – a massive technological accomplishment for its time, with 256 layered and looped vocal tracks. But 10cc’s first few albums are way more challenging than that single would suggest; they’re masterpieces of clever arrangement, unexpected song structures and styles, and brilliant wordplay. Before forming the band, each member – Kevin Godley, Lol Creme, Eric Stewart, and Graham Gouldman – had either been in a band with hit songs, or had written hit songs themselves – experience which no doubt fueled their collectively wild creativity.

 

But the original 10cc fell apart when Godley and Creme invented the Gizmo, a device that adds effects to a guitar’s sound, and  felt that 10cc’s music couldn’t show off all of the Gizmo’s potential. So they left to make their (in)famous Gizmo-laden triple album Consequences. Since then, in addition to their joint and solo musical ventures, Godley and Creme have had great success as music video directors. Gouldman and Stewart (mostly Gouldman) have persevered with various 10cc lineups, and both have played with numerous other musicians.

Bands are organizations. They’re actually very complex organizations, incorporating creative activity, business structures, and multiple influences from internal and external stakeholders. And – unlike many other organizations – bands also have regular  periods of physical and geographical mobility (a/k/a going on tour), when the critical part of the organization has to move from place to place on a rigid time schedule and produce creative output almost every day. But, like bands, many organizations struggle with the problem of having too much talent – and organizations don’t always do a very good job of managing that problem.

I see a lot of organizations who are convinced that talent is the magical ingredient that will guarantee them a competitive advantage. And there’s some truth in that, because creativity and different ways of thinking are definitely desirable assets. But many organizations just want to collect as much talent as they can – not just for what the talent brings to the organization, but sometimes so other organizations won’t get that talent first, and sometimes because an organization looks really good to outsiders if it has a lot of talented people.

However, too often organizations collect talent without really thinking about how different kinds of talent might or might not fit together or inspire each other. The flashy visionary might have great ideas, but those ideas won’t go anywhere without the design wizard and the production genius to figure out how to shape the ideas into reality. To perform well, the people in those positions need those other talents to be able to use their own talents to the fullest. However, none of these talented people can achieve that potential if they feel that the organization is supporting one kind of talent over the other, or not doing its best to allocate resources fairly to everyone – or, even worse, if they perceive that the organization assumes that talented people are talented enough to figure out how to co-exist peacefully and productively, and leaves them to work out any problems on their own. Which, if their talents don’t happen to include good interpersonal skills, can be a trainwreck.

It’s difficult to put the right kinds of talents together, to help them find their optimal balance,  and to encourage that talent to flourish without overly controlling it. The musical examples of Jellyfish and 10cc show the fabulous things that can happen when talents complement each other. But those examples also show the importance of finding the right blend of talents, and the importance of ensuring that everyone in that blend feels supported, appreciated, and satisfied. And sometimes – in bands and in other kinds of organizations –  breaking up is the best thing for the organization and for the individual. Even when that leaves us sadly dreaming about what else they might have accomplished together.

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