At the height of its fame in Detroit, Motown was an agile co-work environment. This made the company’s culture conducive to high-productivity and greatness beyond individual talent.
PROXIMITY: Berry Gordy purchased nine houses on the same downtown block to ensure collaborators could be physically close.
SPRINTS: While records were being made, artists had 24/7 access to the studio. No sleeping on a good idea – artists were encouraged to get in there and work in out no matter what time of day. This led to a high-energy intensity that comes across in the finished product.
CUSTOMER FEEDBACK: Kids from the neighborhood were regularly invited in for beta testing of new tunes, and to play around with rhythm and help compose by doing what they loved. This was part of the local culture of Detroit: if they weren’t in school or dating, kids were usually making music together. Motown tapped into this natural, ongoing dialogue as a force guiding its development.
CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT: Talent came in raw and got developed. Healthy competition ensued as styles were refined and acts tightened. Artists were constantly checking out each other’s work and using these observations to strive to best themselves.
COLLABORATION: After recording the first mix of a new song, all the artists would come in and have a listen. The QA criterion was this – “if you were down to your last dollar, woud you want to spend it on a sandwich or this record?” If long pauses were evident as people thought this through, then it was worth spending some time on it remixing. If people were considering which type of bread they would order while the music was still playing, a tune was scrapped. After much time working together, these opinions were mostly unanimous.
SAFETY: A bad decision, a bad day or a bad record would not break the label’s trust in an artist. The label nurtured talent over time and was relationship-focused.
RETROSPECTIVES: Time was regularly set aside to discuss what worked and what didn’t work about a given project. Opinions were invited from across the board.
LEADERSHIP: At the end of the day, Berry Gordy was accountable to his team and for his team of artists and managers. The family-style structure of the organization meant that high levels of personal commitment were at stake.
In today’s co-work spaces – cities like New Haven (The Grove), Toronto (The Centre for Social Innovation) and Minneapolis (Coco) – welcome start-ups, creatives and nonprofits to co-exist and learn from one another. Agilists can be encouraged by the example of Motown and its innovations in co-branding of place, company and industry that still make Detroit worth visiting.
On the Agileseed Tour, I appreciated Motown’s legacy of creative placemaking tied to aggressively focused development of collective talent. MANY THANKS to the Motown Historical Museum for its rich interpretation, and to Paul Eley who encouraged me to stop in and consider these connections.