How to Vet Ideas: Take a Lesson From Motown
I have a pet peeve about Pixar. Yes, you and your company can learn plenty from Pixar's methods. Yes, Pixar's artistic reputation is well deserved, and all the more impressive since it has not come at the expense of box office success.
Nonetheless, my pet peeve is that sometimes--in casual conversations and in the business media--everyone seems to act like Pixar invented the wheel (or at least the idea of simultaneously pleasing both aesthetes and investors).
I take nothing away from Pixar. All I assert here is that Motown, the record company founded by Berry Gordy in 1959, had mastered the skill of artistic hit-making long before Pixar existed. Between 1961 and 1971, Motown charted 110 top 10 hits. More than half of them sold one million copies, notes The Guardian.
And as it turns out, there are lessons you and your company can take from Motown's methods. Here are two of them:
1. As a leader, make a regular display of the fact that you are not above criticism or negative feedback. Gordy did this at Motown's "quality control" meetings, which took place every Monday at 9am. According to legendary singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson in a recent issue of Uncut, "Everyone would get critiqued, no one was immune. Right down to Berry Gordy, who was still writing and producing."
The purpose of the meetings was to assess the previous week's work: all of the music Motown artists and producers had recorded. The goal was to create a hit record by suggesting how the best of the week's work could be improved. "We'd suggest a new rhyme scheme, or a pay-off, or another chord change, or a melody, or a different arrangement," recalls Robinson.
For Gordy, the key was making his employees feel immune to repercussions, no matter how harshly they criticized someone else's music, no matter whose music it was--Robinson's, Stevie Wonder's or Marvin Gaye's. In a video on Oprah.com, Berry says his aim was to create an "atmosphere of safety of ideas and thoughts."
In the meetings, Gordy took pains to show he was on equal footing with all of the other creators. What mattered most to him was creating a hit for Motown--not gratifying the egos of the various songwriters and producers.
2. Ask yourself--in painstaking terms--if you're providing value to your customers. Even if the creators at Motown's Monday meetings agreed on what their best work of the week was, they did not always release a record.
The reason? Gordy still needed to be convinced that consumers would buy the record, with what little disposable income they had.
"I’d say, 'This record won here, but if you had one dollar, and you were hungry, would you buy this record, or a hot dog?'" Gordy recalls.
On top of the hot dog test, Gordy wanted to simulate how the music would sound to his potential customers. It was one thing to hear a record on Motown's professional equipment. But how that record would sound when played on the radio--or on the less sophisticated record players of consumers--was another matter.
According to former Motown publicist Al Abrams, Gordy intentionally played records "on a cheap machine with a poor sound. The idea was to simulate radio sound. If it sounded good even on the cheap phonograph, it would sound good on the radio."
That level of scrutiny might seem infeasible, in today's atmosphere of getting "minimum viable products" out the door as soon as possible.
But sometimes, that's what it takes to create a hit product--or a company that will forever be remembered for its creative mastery of the hit-making process.