The Secret That Inspires Cirque du Soleil’s Culture Of Innovation: Creative Friction

From Forbes:

I spent last week in Montreal at “C2-MTL”, an international gathering of over 1200 business and creative leaders from over 40 countries, exploring insights into how creativity drives innovation. The conference, curated by ad agency Sid Lee, featured notable speakers including Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Eisner, Arianna Huffington, Robert Wong, Executive Creative Director of Google Creative Lab; Jonah Lehrer, whose recent book, Imagine: How Creativity Works debuted as #1 on the New York Times bestseller list; and Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Director of DreamWorks Animation.

I had the pleasure of visiting with Daniel Lammare, President and CEO of Cirque du Soleil, and glean an insight into what inspires this world-renowned artistic group’s unique approach to innovation.

The creative process begins when Lammare and Guy LaLiberte, the founder and artistic director of Cirque,
define the theme of the next show. This starts out as a broad vision, sometimes as a single word, rather than a confined mandate, to allow for others to have the flexibility to contribute during the creative process. When I asked Lammare if they use brainstorming techniques to arrive at the theme, he laughed. This former corporate executive (he ran Montreal’s largest TV network and its biggest PR agency before joining Cirque) dismissed traditional brainstorming sessions as ineffective, in which “no-idea-is-a-bad-idea” acquiescence and consensus are emphasized over debate and openness. Instead, Cirque’s culture of innovation and creativity encourages honesty and judgment when ideas are explored. Passionate, provocative dissention and disagreements are not only tolerated but cultivated, to spur the best ideas and, as importantly, to eliminate bad ones quickly. While a consensus seeking approach may lead to a few incremental innovations, he says, a bit of tension, even friction during creative ideation, is likely to lead to innovation breakthrough.

Once a theme is decided upon, Lammare and LaLiberte step back and let the creative director of that particular show to take over and develop the concept over the 2-3 years that it takes to put the show together. The pair reviews progress every 6 months, but in order to encourage collaboration they do not dictate changes, simply point out what doesn’t work, and leave it to the creative director and the troupe to come up with solutions. The pair’s focus is on quality control, and making sure that the product unfolds within the original vision that they created, without micro-managing the “line executives” who are responsible for putting the show together.

As with any artistic endeavor, inspiration plays a big part in the creative process, but Cirque’s approach to innovation, while intuitive, is guided by a deep commitment to R&D as the catalyst of the creative spark. It researches trends continuously, both online and with in-country trend-spotters; it blankets the globe with talent scouts to discover new performers; and it relies on researchers within its own extensive archives that contain thousands of books, videos, musical scores, and images to establish accuracy of details. Scores of researchers feed information of what’s “cool” and unique that allows the creative directors to determine the relevancy and appeal of the new show (Cirque, which was founded by street buskers 28 years ago, has produced 33 shows since, of which 21 are still touring today around the world).

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