Blog: Heart, Sound, and Soul: Motown, Music, and Human-Centered Design


Lately, I’ve been wondering if it’s possible to run a successful business targeting people as your central, most important resource. Beyond the standard, corporate culture and human resource platitudes, does human-centered business design really work?

Then I went to visit Hitsville U.S.A., where from two modest houses in Detroit came a sound that changed the world.

If you’ve never been to the Motown Museum on West Grand Boulevard in the city’s New Center neighborhood, you are missing out on something extraordinary. Here is a place where vision, creativity, and hard work came together with humble confidence and joy.

A lot has been written about the history of Motown and the truly American story of an African-American entrepreneur who created a new style of music and launched the careers of Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, and on and on and on.

But the magic, the mystery, and the true secret of Hitsville U.S.A. reside in the underlying current of what connects us all as human beings.

Berry Gordy was driven by a desire to build a business, make money, and find success like most entrepreneurs. What was different was the way he went about doing it.

It all started with family. His family was the center of his world and he built his business in and around it. Music and songwriting were his love and passion, and those became the core products of his new music company. And finally, he knew that true creativity was a collaborative process that relied on trust, understanding, and a mutual respect between artists (and owner).

Gordy noted:

“I’ve discovered that Motown and Broadway have a lot in common — a family of wonderfully talented, passionate, hardworking young people, fiercely competitive but also full of love and appreciation for the work, for each other, and for the people in the audience.”

Sure, Gordy was running a business and there were fights, arguments, and battles about creative control, money, and myriad other things that every family faces. But ultimately, the heart, soul, and spirit of Motown was in its people; the musicians, the singers, and the staff.

If you go to the Motown Museum, you will find a place with a front door that never closed from 1959 -1972. When the company moved to Los Angeles, the door was open 24/7 and Gordy encouraged people to come by and visit, share ideas, and collaborate. In fact, Gordy lived right upstairs for a time, so if you wanted access to the boss and had a great idea for a song, chances are you’d get an audience with the man himself.

This was the vibe created by a businessman who believed in the power of the human spirit. He put people first and the world continues to benefit from the payoff.

Gordy said, “Motown was about music for all people — white and black, blue and green, cops and the robbers. I was reluctant to have our music alienate anyone.”

If you go to Motown, you’ll meet the people, feel the love and the warm embrace of a business that built its success on the simple belief that every human being is special. And when they’re brought together with purpose, miracles can happen.

Joseph F. Bastian, president of The Human Performance Network, is a regular contributor to and DBusiness Daily News.