The Structure of Opportunities and Wonder

Last night was the latest installment of KCRW’s World Music Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. Every year, there are six shows in this series as part of the larger Hollywood Bowl season and every show provides the opportunity for something special.  Last night’s show celebrating Global Soul attempted to be just that.  Varying from the norm of a few acts with a clear headliner set, this show was curated by Ricky Minor of THE TONIGHT SHOW and AMERICAN IDOL and it featured far more than a few acts with the headliner being Stevie Wonder.  The reason why I’m writing about it here is not completely because of how the show went, but what it offered and the lessons that can be culled from it.

It was immediately evident at the start that this was going to be an abnormal show.  Minor came out and talked about his vision a little bit, did an impromptu welcome of Wonder to the stage – where Wonder talked for a short bit – and then the show began.  Each performer came out and performed two to three songs backed by Minor’s phenomenal band.  In some cases, the band didn’t get to rehearse with the performers for more than a short period – one of the performers didn’t arrive from Africa until earlier in the afternoon – and you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference as the only thing that seemed to take away from their great sound was a power outage.  Effectively, with this band and the array of performers he recruited, Minor set up the evening with a structure where the possibility was set for magic to happen.

Many times, expectations are set coming into a show like this and when things veer from the norm, they can obviously be welcomed or dismissed.  Some of the things that were great about the night were also part of the bad things – with performers only doing 2-3 songs, the best ones couldn’t go on long enough.  Examples of that were Charles Bradley, Janelle Monáe and Wonder.  It seemed that Minor tried to pack so much into the show that it didn’t really have any opportunity to breathe.  There were definite sparks that could have set the night on fire, but they were extinguished before they could get going.

Most people had probably never heard of Charles Bradley – he has just released his first album at the age of 62 – but his spirit was infectious leading to one of the few standing ovations of the evening.  Janelle Monáe had performed in the KCRW series last year as one of the openers for Grace Jones, but it seemed she took notes from Jones and her command of the stage and challenging Bowl dynamics belied her diminutive frame. Stevie Wonder came out and set off into his personal recollections of soul through his life and performed seemingly impromptu covers of those songs.  I could have listened to him do that for hours, but as quickly as that started, he segued into his hit, Superstitious, leading everyone to believe he was going to work through a number of his hits.  Unfortunately, that was the only one.  The tone changed when everyone came back on stage, including the YOLA youth symphony, to cover Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?.  There was so much going on with the kids in the back and a seeming power struggle between the opening performers to trade vocal riffs with Wonder, it just took away from the “soul” or emotionality of the event.

So, throughout the evening, it was an ebb and flow whether it was a success or not.  I recognize that it is only a show, but it does have a correlation to business.  Some of the best companies set a foundation or structure for effective and optimized business, but also allow for some innovation and improvisation as part of that structure.  But that is only part of the equation – guiding that spark once it begins is the key.  Just saying that you support innovation and experimentation and then letting things end abruptly at the origination phase is actually counter-productive.  In the case of the show, it manifested itself in starts-and-stops and stilted flow.  In the case of business, it manifests itself in lost opportunities and stilted morale – or even worse, loss of talent.

There are absolutely reasons for everything.  Minor did a great job in setting the stage, but there was too little room left to allow for things to really take off.  Business leaders should provide the structure for basic business PLUS innovation and growth AND be ready for it so they can help lead that opportunity to reach its full potential.  If anything, the show proved that having an air-tight plan is not the whole measure of success.

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