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Monday, October 6, 2014

Managing Product Creativity with the "Motown Model"

I recently listened to a brilliant interview on satellite radio with Smokey Robinson, a legend in music. Mr. Robinson was at Motown Records from the beginning and almost as an aside provided some fascinating insight into a creative process that generated an unfathomable number of great songs from some of the greatest artists of all time.

I guess there's a chance that younger folks or people who haven't been exposed much to American culture don't know about Motown records. For the rest of us, an almost incalculable number of hits from folks like The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Gladys Knight and Smokey himself make Motown a modern music institution.

In describing how songs were composed and selected, Smokey outlined what I consider a compelling best practice for managing creative people that leveraged collaboration and an appropriate amount of structure to deliver greatness. He talked about how there was a special meeting held every Monday morning for only creative types: no folks in suites from sales or distribution. The meeting began promptly at 9:00, at which time the doors were locked. If you were late, you were out. At the meeting, composers would bring the songs they were working on to be reviewed by other composers and producers. Suggestions for improvement were made as necessary with the composer bringing the song back for further review in the next meeting. The group would vote on which songs should be recorded and released.

I see no reason that a similar approach couldn't be adopted by product groups trying to ensure the right features are developed and shipped. Here are what I consider the key learnings from the "Motown Approach" Smokey described:
  • Creativity was taken so seriously it was addressed in a regular, dedicated meeting
  • The meeting was limited to creative types actually involved in making the music (not necessarily marketing, selling and distributing it).
  • The meetings had rules and a purpose -- they didn't involve a bunch of unfocused creative types trying to out-innovate each other. If you didn't take the process seriously, you didn't participate.
  • The goal of the participants was to help composers create the best song possible based on the Motown aesthetic (they understood their brand and expectations of it). I would assume in general the group was more supportive than it was judgmental.
  • Ideas were transparently voted on. I would assume that while some participants didn't agree with the decisions that were made, they didn't have the feeling that their creativity was being judged by a few leaders in a smoky (pun intended) back room.
So how about it product managers? Why not hold regular meetings at a rhythm that makes sense to your organization where creative types can share and collaboratively refine ideas? Why not introduce some level of voting in feature selection? There are many tools available to product managers that can make this process easy and transparent (including a white board or Excel!). Perhaps some simple rules could ensure that participants take the process seriously and only those willing to constructively  contribute are included. Maybe there's some value in limiting participation to folks that are genuinely willing to contribute creative ideas, rather than the folks more focused on getting the product "off the shelf".

I haven't test driven this approach yet, but would imagine with a bit of good faith effort and a bit of leadership (likely from product management), it could result in more innovative products and a more cohesive team. I can only assume that some groups have already adopted similar approaches.

What do you think of the Motown model? Is your product development group actively managing creativity? Are the right people "at the table" when it comes to creativity and innovation. I would love to hear about your experiences.

Next Post: Not a product manager in sight...

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