Promoting Creativity Is Cirque du Soleil’s Business Strategy

By J.J. Smith Apr 3, 2008

BOSTON—Business strategies used by the world-famous Cirque du Soleil to tap employee creativity can be used by businesses for the same purpose, a top member of that organization told an audience at SHRM’s 2008 Global Conference and Exposition here on April 2.

In 1984 a group of street performers banded together and formed the forerunner of Cirque du Soleil, Lyn Heward, the organization’s ambassador and executive producer for special projects, said during a keynote presentation. Using a circus tent provided by the Quebec government, the group toured Quebec and Ontario until 1987 when it began touring the United States, starting at the Los Angeles Arts Festival, she said. The group continued to tour the United States until 1992 when it landed a spot at the Mirage casino in Las Vegas. Since 1993, Cirque du Soleil has produced more than a dozen shows; it now employs more than 4,000 artists, artisans, designers, technicians and employees, said Heward. Cirque du Soleil’s employees all seek to contribute artistic works that “invoke the imagination, provoke the senses and evoke the emotions” of the audience, she said.

After many successes, and some failures, in 2006 Cirque du Soleil published The Spark: Igniting the Creative Fire That Lives Within Us All, which chronicles the growth of Cirque du Soleil while highlighting creative successes, Heward said. The book lists seven strategies—called “doors”—that encourage creativity and can help business leaders to “sculpt a vision of the future,” she said.

    Great expectations: Everyone has creativity within them; it is just a question of tapping into it on a regular basis and in real life, Heward said. Tapping that creativity is like exercising in that it needs to be practiced daily and can be, she said. For example, there are those who, when they enter a room, become focused on how the room can be remodeled; others plant gardens; other organize dinner parties; while others have the ability to create a show, she said.

    Surrender to your senses: Paying attention to your senses encourages everyone to develop intuitive instinct, Heward said. The world is constantly changing in large and small ways, and occasionally an individual instigates changes, but more often someone else has instigated them, she said. An individual needs to ensure that his or her senses and instincts are finely honed so they can be used to savor the sensations and store them so they have experience with the sensorial wealth of the world, she said. All the new ideas and experiences need to be captured as they occur, even if they do not seem valuable at the time, she added.

    Treasure hunting and creative transformation. Cirque du Soleil’s roots in street performance are an indication of the type of individuals the organization seeks—or “hunts”—to join the group, Heward said. That is the “heart” of Cirque du Soleil, she added. The first members of Cirque du Soleil were open-minded risk takers. They were free spirits who were mostly self-taught and who lived a nomadic lifestyle, and they were considered “marginal” to society. Yet they exhibited a tough business sense. Successive generations of artists, artisans, technicians and employees have reinforced these qualities, she said.

    Nurturing environment. A major responsibility in entertainment and business is to create and build a nurturing environment that is conducive to productivity, creativity and personal growth, Heward said. At Cirque du Soleil, the ideal working environment is “a fantastical playground” that has rules but that still allows artists, designers and employees to see the world through the eyes of a child, she said. Viewing the world with eagerness, curiosity, excitement and playfulness establishes an open, inviting atmosphere that encourages thought and action and takes into consideration that it is difficult to be creative in isolation, she said. While Cirque du Soleil wants collaborative creativity, all team members need to be aware that the ultimate goal is the product. It’s all about the show, she said.

    Constraints, challenges, differences and consumer expectations. It is common knowledge among investors that Cirque du Soleil designers do not like budget, deadlines or limited resources, Heward said. However, even the creative personnel admit that the constraints force them to become more resourceful and more creative, she said. The constraints require being able to produce solutions that might not have been thought of before, and they are motivators for getting the job done, she said.

    Risk taking; do you ever get burned? Creativity is—first and foremost—about the courage to take risks, to try new things and to share those experiences with others, Heward said. That requires being able to leverage credibility gained over many years and use it to take risks, she said. In taking risks, mistakes can occasionally be made, she added. But employees can learn from mistakes, and that can create greater credibility over the long term, she said. The biggest risk an organization can take is to adopt complacency and not take risks, which can turn out to be the least productive strategy, she said.

    Keep it fresh. By developing new creative products, Cirque du Soleil keeps the product fresh, Heward said. That helps ensure that the product maintains durability and longevity, she said. The organization’s managers are constantly encouraging and receiving employee feedback and ideas in ways that recognize that there might be many different approaches to reach the same result, she said. It encourages the notion of shared creative ownership. In addition, artists, leaders or managers have to review and scrutinize the product continually from the perspective of the audience, she said. Therefore, Cirque du Soleil’s leaders sit in the audience, night after night, watching the show and listening to what the audience has to say about the performance.

J.J. Smith is manager of SHRM Online’s Global HR Focus Area.


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