Don’t Forget the Motor City: Product Leadership Lessons From Motown
I’d always thought that Motown’s success was a combination of its talented stars and fortunate timing, but I recently learned that much of its success was down to a mastery of the power of the team – loosely coupled, highly aligned. The mindset and methods responsible for Motown’s huge success in its heyday are just as relevant today.
Everyone at Motown was empowered with a singular goal that they all collected around: to create hit records.
The vision to create hit records enabled Motown to build a powerful culture that turned an $800 investment in 1960 into $20 million annual revenue within six years and produced some of the biggest hits and superstars of the 20th century.
But teams that want to generate their own success don’t need a Diana Ross or Smokey Robinson to make it work. Motown capitalized on its vision by following a set of first principles that will sound quite familiar:
- Iterate rapidly through divergence and convergence
- Accept failure as a necessary step to learning
- Critique artifacts, not people
- Scale through strong, service-based leadership
Diverge, Converge, Repeat
Motown founder Berry Gordy had worked in a Ford-Lincoln plant in Detroit. There that he learned about production lines and quality control, though his company ended up resembling more of a modern design studio than a Model T factory.
Constraints often produce the best results. Motown consistently created market impact by balancing divergent and convergent thinking. Divergence allowed them to produce a huge stock of ideas, and convergence helped them narrow those ideas down objectively to the few most likely to succeed.
A typical weekly process looked like this (as told by former engineer Bob Ohlsson):
- Each writing/production team was required to generate five new songs a week
- During the Monday-morning production meeting, the two strongest submissions from each team would be identified, and the teams would focus their week on getting to a basic recording of each
- Each team would generally take only one song to finished quality
- Recorded songs went through several mixes–some received over 100, though the average was 15
- At the end of the week, the quality control department listened to each final recording and determined whether it would be a hit. No song could be released until the department unanimously agreed it was ready
This feels familiar: apply limited gates early on to encourage open ideation, and gradually narrow through cross-functional critique and prioritization. This has the benefit of removing ownership bias while moving risk upstream.
The idea was to have more flops within the company and fewer on the streets Bob Ohlsson
The company invested time early in the process to produce lots of ideas when risk was low. By final release, over 20 songs and over 10 recordings had been discarded (each week!). Though this process was expensive, it was less costly than producing riskier albums that were more likely to flop after distribution.
Consider how you could save time and money by adopting a similar process of iteration and critique:
- Make creation a habit: Hold regular design studios and invite non-designers to participate in order to build the skill of rapid idea generation
- Work small, think big: Batch problems and ideation into small iterations so ideas don’t get stale
- Build critique as a muscle: Hold regular critique sessions and force yourselves to take only the strongest ideas forward
- Gate decisions, not ideation: Empower individuals to generate and explore ideas independently, and set clear standards and principles as a unit that every idea must meet to move forward
Adopt a Culture of Learning
The story of the single “Shop Around,” by the Miracles is one that sticks out. Two weeks after the song was originally released, Gordy called up songwriter and lead singer Smokey Robinson at 3am to say he thought the song was too bluesy; it needed to be more upbeat for wider commercial appeal.
Despite the sunk cost (the vinyl had already been pressed and released), Gordy assembled the band in the middle of the night at the recording studio. The re-released track shot to the top of the charts and became the first Motown single to sell a million records. Gordy had to be willing to accept risk or failure. he assumed he didn’t always have the right answer, and that the first answer wasn’t always right.
The flipside of this occurred over a decade later. After Marvin Gaye recorded “What’s Going On”, Gordy apparently called it the worst song he had ever heard and shelved it.
Gaye trusted himself and his music, and after refusing to produce additional songs until his was released, and an executive at the company helped release it without Gordy’s permission. It became the fastest-selling single the label had ever produced.
Gordy quickly acknowledged that he was wrong, and gave Gaye creative freedom to produce the entire album. His concession to let the artists take more control over their work then led to the success of Stevie Wonder, and the series of soul and funk-based artists that carried the label into the next decade.
Motown maintained short iteration cycles, balanced data with instinct, and kept a culture that allowed individuals to challenge leadership. This combination resulted in an agile and adaptive process that persisted for decades.
No Room for ego
Berry Gordy discovered quality control while working on an assembly line, and applied the concept ruthlessly at Motown. His Brain Trust meetings had one objective: identify which songs were most likely to be successful.
The goal was to create a hit record by suggesting how the best of the week’s work could be improved Berry Gordy
By creating a specific and common purpose for everyone involved, critique was expected, and never personal. Gordy actively created “an atmosphere of safety of ideas and thoughts” where anyone could voice their opinion without fear of retribution.
Critically, he was not immune from the process. Despite his role as founder and CEO, Gordy continued to write and produce songs, but his position offered no guarantee that his songs would be selected to be released. This added to the culture of trust and candor that allowed for a democracy of ideas to flourish.
Gordy didn’t surround himself with yes men or music producers in these meetings. Instead, he filled the quality control department with a set of people who could speak to the entire cycle, from production to distribution to market trends.
A non-creative person’s vote counted just as much as a creative person’s. I took the democratic approach because although I was in charge at Motown, I made logic the boss: no egos or politics allowed. Not even mine. And I did it because of truth. “The truth is a hit,” was what we used to say in our Quality Control meetings at Motown.Berry Gordy’s 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved
Think about how you might adopt a similar Brain Trust in your organization:
- Open it up: Make inclusion a priority to avoid group-think and ownership bias.
- Don’t make it personal: Everyone should be subject to critique and held to the same standards.
- Promote decisiveness: Everyone gets only one vote, and the question they are voting on should be clear. In Motown’s case, the question wasn’t “do I like it” but “will it be successful”.
- Use real data: How can you keep your perception from skewing decisions? Berry avoided this by playing songs through a tinny car stereo to reflect a realistic listening environment, so they could hear what the customer would hear.
- Demand excellence: Hold everyone accountable to the group’s goals. The Brain Trust collectively was accountable for the success of the hits that were released to the market, and they ensured everyone from artist to salesperson was supported and responsible.
Leadership is Culture
Much of Motown’s ability to learn from mistakes and successes alike owed to the strong culture of accountability and shared ownership. Gordy demonstrated this as a leader, creating a space for others to feel empowered to follow. “If they don’t get a hit, it’s our fault, not theirs,” he said of the artists.
There was no question who was in charge. Gordy gave himself power of veto power at all quality control meetings, and remained involved in the day-to-day operations of the label, even as it scaled.
However, he made two crucial decisions on how to lead that cultivated the creative atmosphere around him.
First, he hired people who were better than him, better songwriters, better producers, and he refused to be intimidated by them. This challenged everyone at the company, including himself, to adopt a learning mindset that led to personal growth.
Second, he allowed for complete creative freedom in the discovery and production of ideas, while maintaining strict, collective principles that everyone adhered to for decision making. This allowed him to distribute risk and accountability to create a sense of co-ownership that drove the entire company toward excellence.
Hitsville had an atmosphere that allowed people to experiment creatively and gave them the courage not to be afraid to make mistakes. In fact, I sometimes encouraged mistakes. Everything starts as an idea, and as far as I was concerned, there were no stupid ones. “Stupid” ideas are what created the light bulb, airplanes and the like.Berry Gordy’s 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved
Many companies struggle to find a balance between power and autonomy, but Motown proved the model. While Gordy maintained control over the direction of the company, he used his power to empower others, and then granted them the freedom to do something with it.
Making hits was the only thing that mattered. Because the Motown north star was so precise, it left no room for ego. Decisions could be made on principle, stars had the same accountability as secretaries, and even the man at the top wasn’t immune to criticism.
That’s the secret to Motown’s success.
Your leadership will reflect in your organization’s culture. Expose your leadership to the same critique as you would other parts of the culture to test its strength:
- Hire to your weaknesses: Ask the team to assess your relative strengths and weaknesses through a 360-degree evaluation.
- Make decisions clear and democratic: Ensure your organization has a clear vision and principles to help you make decisions objectively, and ensure everyone, including leadership, is accountable to them.
- Expose your blind spots: Ask others to write out the unwritten rules of your organization’s culture to expose your invisible culture.
- Conduct research: Hold regular interviews to assess how empowered your team feels to act on and own collective goals.
It’s in the Grooves
Berry Gordy knew that culture existed in the grooves: in the often invisible patterns that exist between people. For pop music, these were simple themes of love, joy, and heartbreak. In his company, these were the defined patterns that everyone would follow so they could focus their energy on creativity and precision.
Whether you adopt all of his methods or some, Gordy proved that an organization could be successful through empowered teams, rapid iteration cycles of creation and critique, and a shared purpose.
If you want to learn more about Motown, check out the following resources:
- Hitsville, the Making of Motown (Showtime)
- Deep Soul, the Rising up of Motown
- To Be Loved, Berry Gordy’s memoir
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