When I first experienced Cirque du Soleil as a spectator, I became lost in a charismatic landscape, an interplay of myth and reality. One moment I observed a form that looked human, then a bird, an animal and even an insect. Although it was 20 years ago I still remember it most vividly. This ...When I first experienced Cirque du Soleil as a spectator, I became lost in a charismatic landscape, an interplay of myth and reality. One moment I observed a form that looked human, then a bird, an animal and even an insect. Although it was 20 years ago I still remember it most vividly. This unique entertainment experience blurred the lines between dance and contortion, acrobatics and theatre, the obvious and the unexpected. In these moments of transfixed observation I re-experienced the wonder of childhood in the elation of an entertainment that aroused my heart and captured the soul of my imagination.

So, when the opportunity came to interview Lyn Heward,former President, Creative Content Division of the Cirque du Soleil, also the author of a recent book “The Spark: Igniting the Creative Fire that Lives within Us All” published by Random House, I knew it was going to be exciting.

It was also a somewhat coincidence because my upcoming book and a related seminar that I teach and speak on has a similar name, “Spark - The Secret Science of Creating” and, because I consult with companies as an Innovation Coach, I remain eternally curious about creativity and learning.

Since The Cirque’s humble beginning in June of 1984 near Quebec City in Canada by Guy Laliberté and a group of young street performers, Cirque is now home to over 3500 artists, artisans, designers, technicians and employees, and has given birth to 20 unique shows, over 5,000 performances per year, plus myriad special events including performing at the 2002 Academy Awards, permanent sites in Las Vegas and Orlando, as well as a creation studio and international headquarters in Montreal.

What captivated me first in Lyn’s animated presentation was The Cirque’s well articulated strategic vision that was developed by Lyn in 1997, under circumstances that one might think were less than creative. “Guy Laliberte felt it was time to revisit the mission statements, which were really guidelines. It was before the Christmas holidays and he asked us about whether the existing mission and values still fit. So I started thinking about it but right after Christmas the ice storm hit. We had no power for 6 days and one day I tripped into an ice bank to avoid a taxi that was swerving on the road. I broke my wrist in 5 places and was on painkillers, but that’s when I came up with it - To live and contribute creatively to artistic works which invoke the imagination, provoke the senses and evoke the emotions of our spectators around the world.”

One of the first things Lyn told me is that “Everyone, when they come to Cirque as an employee, even an accountant, comes there because it’s a creative and admired company, and they want to be able to contribute something creatively.”

She describes how her own secretary, who came from magazine publishing, became enthusiastic about wanting to make a unique creative gesture in one of their projects. A paper hobbyist, she proceeded to illustrate the project storyboard on hand-made paper and water colours. “It fit, because the story was about water. She felt creatively fulfilled because she was able to make this contribution.”

I asked Lyn how the Cirque is able to maintain their creative culture with employees who are not show performers. She explained, “You have to share the culture and after this you can’t then tell them to go work in their cubicle. So the working space also has to reflect the values/vision to each employee.”

“In addition to the accountant we have an employee who is a character called “Madame Zazou.” She’ll animate a meeting or run a contest, where the employee can do a performance and she really keeps the energy going. Recently, I was attending an annual meeting, and wanted to sit in the back. I came in a few minutes late. Madame Zazou, having no idea who I was, because I’d been away traveling and had not met her personally, pulled me in to sit next to the president Mr. Daniel Lamarre, thinking she was probably helping to create a new experience for one of the employees.”

As we got deeper into the conversation, I asked Lyn what she thought was the most important learning for her over the years.

“When my children were little, I’d get up at 6:00 am every day to get ready for work. Back then in Montreal, there was an ad that ran from Dofasco, a steel manufacturer that really struck me. It went like this - “Our product is steel. Our strength is people”. I think that no matter what your product is, whether it’s computers, cars or anything else, your results lie in having a passionate strong team of people. People are the driving force. I think because the Cirque’s product is the sum total of people, it’s a little more evident.”

I wondered aloud at this point because many companies seem to think of creativity as such a soft skill that, if they can just get the dysfunctional politics and poor performance practices out of the way, it’s just going to happen. But the truth, Lyn agrees is quite different.

Lyn reinforces that creativity takes enduring work, energy and commitment. She says “Our most natural resource is the people we work with who are the people we build our product with. Unless there’s a strong commitment to teambuilding and passionate leadership, creativity, even at the Cirque, it would not happen.”

“Guy Laliberte”, the founder, is still connected with the company, but brings a lot of
“parrinage”, a French word for “godfathering” of the creative and intuitive spirit - soul stewarding. But it’s work that we take seriously. Guy meets monthly with his key players to talk about the product, the processes and the people, and how to keep people involved in the creative spirit and the intuitive spirit.”

“For us training is “creative transformation” and recruiting is “treasure-hunting”. Even at Cirque, we have to work hard at it. We too could lose our soul, if we didn’t have the commitment. We have a “Creative Synergy” department, whose preoccupation is in doing this.”

“Creative Transformation is the most important doorway for us. We’re trying to find the “pearl” the hidden talent in that individual. What is the unique thing that person brings? I think you need to dig deeper as we call it ‘treasure-hunting’ What makes that person tick and how does it contribute to the work that you’re doing?”

Cirque scours the world for ideas and inspirations which become the driving force for their creative process. Like a lot of companies they look for specific skill-sets and attributes and experience for each position. But beyond that and importantly they look for the unique potential of each person, to bring out something extraordinary which pushes his or her limits and makes that individual to true contributor to the Cirque’s creative process.

Team-work is also major. Not one individual makes the Cirque. “Creativity is fostered in work groups where people first get to know each other and then learn to trust one another. And, in this playground we recognize that a good idea can emerge from anywhere in the organization or from within a team. We make our shows from this collective creativity.”

The Human Resources and Performance Review Processes at Cirque are self-created. Five main things are evaluated. “I am creative, committed, responsible, team player, passionate.”

Once a year they bring in new talent; 60 or 70 candidates are gathered from around the world and pushed to their extended limits for up to 16 weeks. “We have them try and do things which they may never have done before and we evaluate their core human values applicable to the job at hand, their ability to work in a team in order to solve problems, the courage to take risks, both physical and artistic, their generosity both to the public and in sharing their ideas with other team members, their willingness to manage their own artistic growth and to learn quickly. Then we hire them, not for who they are now but for what they might become.”

In a particularly poignant moment of her presentation she described what happens after they’ve found talent, through a process called “creative transformation”. One of the analogies they use is this one by artist Michelangelo, the creator of the masterpiece statue David. Responding to a question about how he created this work, Michaelangelo replied that David was already inside of the stone; to find him he just needed to chip away all the pieces that weren’t David.

In a similar way, Cirque’s longtime Stage Director, Franco Dragone demands of new artists “Who are you?”. “This way he removes the stereotypical behaviours that often plague young artists, gymnasts and other athletes in general. By sticking his hand down their throats, he pulled them out of themselves and brought forth real, raw beings from whom he would sculpt his characters. It is interesting to note that when asked who they are most people will define themselves through their families, jobs, their likes and dislikes, but very rarely through their inner most thoughts and emotions. It’s very much like peeling an onion to get to the sweet, intense core.”

“In our shows, we don’t tell a story, we use an ‘open architecture’. Our directors write the shows and there are always a series of images and inspirations that weave their way through the show which are interpreted by the individuals in the audience. People will give you entirely different readings of the acts. This leaves room for the imagination of the spectator to read or interpret it in light of the experience of their own life. People are looking to see themselves.”

At Cirque the ideal ‘working space’ is a fantastical playground, which although it may have many rules, is a place where a designer, an artisan or an employee can see the world through the eyes of a child: with curiosity, eagerness, excitement and playfulness.
It has an open and inviting atmosphere which stimulates creative thought and action and which takes into consideration that:

· All team members have the product as their ultimate goal and feel responsible for its success or failure;
· Creative synergy is encouraged, recognized and rewarded. It’s also understood that, “We are each but a quarter note in a grand symphony” and, as a consequence, it’s also a place where a sense of humility and sharing of ‘creative ownership’ is instilled;
· In this fantastical playground, employees are offered the protection and support that they need to take risks on the company’s behalf;
· An interdependent structure allows for greater risk-taking and potentially greater results. And, of course, where risk-taking is encouraged, some errors are permitted!
· Finally, the physical structure and decoration of this playground are both stimulating and inspirational, something the employees can be proud of.

“It is common knowledge that Cirque Designers don’t like budgets, deadlines, and limited resources. Privately however, even they will admit that these ‘constraints’ force us to become more resourceful and more creative! They require us to come up with solutions we’d never thought of before…and, they actually become motivators for getting the job done. In fact, some of our most inspired ideas arise from moderately spartan situations.”

“In fact, incredible freedom is a problem for most people because it requires us to think differently and imposes the highest form of risking-taking and exposes them to criticism and failure. So, in the long-run, defining some limits and giving some guidelines or specifications become a creative catalyst by establishing the playing field.”

Cirque is also influenced by what is happening outside of our organization. “We have to listen to and be in touch with the world. It provides our motivation and inspiration. When the world needs hope, we must provide it. When the world is troubled by terrorism, water pollution or violence in youth…we must set an example, lead the way and incite change. In this way your social mission, too, can become a creative catalyst.”

“We also have to understand how cultural differences affect our creative products. We have learned to take inspiration from the well over 60 different cultures which co-exist within our organization. Each person brings at least part of his own culture to the creative table and these elements become our cultural assets: Brazilian percussion and capoeira, Australian didgeridoo, Ukrainian and Africa dancing, Wushu, Peking Opera and Kung Fu have all found their way into our multidisciplinary shows. All of these cultural imports contribute to and enhance our products.”

“And finally, we need to take into consideration the needs and expectations of our consumers. Our spectators want to be amused, surprised, if not astounded, and to escape from their daily lives if only for a short while, or to be moved or touches or somehow changed by the experience.

Creativity is, first and foremost, all about courage, a willingness to take risks, to try new things and share the experience with others. In fact, as an individual or as a company, complacency is the biggest risk you will ever take, and most often the least productive. Risk-taking can be defined as the balance of power between success and fear of failure.
So the moral of this story is that we all need to practice risk-taking! Our fears hold us back, make us cautious…instead we need to forge ahead and make a few mistakes… and hopefully learn from them. Here, we call this ‘research and development’!”

Individuals, Creative Leaders & Managers can learn a lot from applying some of the learned creativity processes of the Cirque du Soleil. Here are some ideas on Creative Transformation that may be helpful to your organization.

Ideas on Creative Transformation From Cirque du Soleil

1. Work outside of your comfort zone

2. Take risks. Try something different.

3. Use inventiveness & creativity to everyday tasks and problems, as well as to the big exciting projects.

4. Build a nurturing environment which is conducive to productivity, creativity and personal growth.

5. Practice teamwork. True creativity requires stimulation and collaboration. It’s difficult to be creative in isolation.

6. Keep creativity fresh with hard-working bosses who constantly encourage and receive employees’ ideas and feedback and accept that there are often different ways of getting to the same end result.

7. Commit to looking critically at your work or your product from an outside perspective, from the point of view of the consumer. In Cirque’s case, we sit in the house, watch and listen to comments the spectators make during and after the show. We are constantly asking ourselves what we can do better and most often we try it!

8. Stay connected with your end product to see if it still fits the demands of the market.

9 Expose your employees to your product: see the show, wear the clothes, drive the car! Encourage their sense of ‘ownership’, cultivate their pride and share your success with them.

Author's Bio: 

Arupa Tesolin, a Trainer, Speaker & Innovation Coach, is the author of ting! - A Surprising Way to Listen to Intuition & Do Business Better, and one of the world's leading authorities in business intuition and developing intuition skills in the workplace. www.intuita.com