Cirque du Soleil is the most creative organization on the planet. No other comes close.
Each time Cirque develops a new show, creative directors start with a blank sheet of paper. Their mandate is clear: Create the kind of magic that Cirque fans know and love. Surpass their expectations. And then do it again, and again. Several times every single year.
If you want to learn how to supercharge creativity in your life or your organization, study Cirque. I had the opportunity to sit down with its long-time CEO, Daniel Lamarre, who recently retired and wrote a compelling new book called Balancing Acts: Unleashing the Power of Creativity in Your Life and Work. I asked Daniel to share the secrets to Cirque's success. Here are the takeaways.
The concept of "creative destruction" exemplifies Cirque's culture because it means it is constantly reinventing itself. Coined by Austrian-born economist Joseph Schumpeter, the phrase "creative destruction" describes the capitalist process of new innovations replacing existing ones. For example, like video streaming services replacing DVDs. Or, in Cirque's case, its new show, which must be even more spectacular and impressive than previous shows. In other words, nothing is sacred. Cirque is constantly reinventing itself.
Cirque has created strategic partnerships with some of the world's most iconic artists and brands, from the Beatles to Elvis to Michael Jackson. But this invites the question: How does Cirque convince would-be partners that they are worthy of a long-term collaboration? After all, the original artists have already created masterpieces that have withstood the test of time. Cirque has a well-established strategic partnership process in place, and it works. The company is open minded and humble during the courtship process. Lamarre says, "We don't have an ounce of arrogance during negotiations." Cirque makes it clear that there is an underlying respect for the artist's intellectual property. Cirque also indicates that, should they move forward, it intends to get the partners involved at every step of the creative process -- much more than they would expect. "After all, we want to create something that will make them proud," says Lamarre.
New interpretations of a masterpiece
Once Cirque gets the green-light, it is faced with the daunting task of creating new interpretations of existing masterpieces. How can you improve upon a song like "Lucy in Sky With Diamonds"? Cirque first does a deep dive with the partners to understand how it could bring certain characters to life. For example, they may ask Paul McCartney to describe Lucy and how he envisions her. What does this woman look like? What are her personality traits? Where is she coming from and where is she heading? Cirque then assembles a diverse creative team to develop these concepts and returns to the next meeting with a visual interpretation of the characters. It's safe to say the partners are usually blown away by what they see.
James Cameron came to visit Cirque and wanted to know everything and talk to everyone -- from the technicians to the artists to the set designers. "I thought it would be a 20-minute meeting, but it lasted three hours," said Lamarre. "Same thing with Elon Musk. He came to see our show -- Kurios -- and I invited him to have a drink and meet the cast after the show. He was the very last person to leave, two hours after the show ended. He couldn't stop asking questions. He wanted to know everything." When mutual partners share a healthy level of intellectual curiosity about each other, good things tend to happen.
ABC: Always be challenging
Cirque follows what I call the ABC's of creativity, which states that it should always be challenging itself -- even its deepest preconceived notions of what works and what doesn't. Ideas should come from everywhere in an organization, and the best ideas should win. It's that simple. It really doesn't matter who generates the idea at Cirque; if it's good, it will be incorporated into a new show. And it gets plenty of diverse ideas, with talent from over 70 countries contributing to the collective mind. "I know the terms 'diversity' and 'inclusion' are in vogue now, but we never mention them. They're already baked into our DNA," Lamarre asserts. "They have been for 37 years. We couldn't imagine any other way."
The CEO must set the creative tone at the top
Case in point, many years ago, an employee walked into Lamarre's office and said he had just seen a new technology -- called drones -- that could likely be incorporated into one of Cirque's new shows. Lamarre looked at the employee and said, "What are you doing in my office?" For a split second the employee felt ashamed that he was wasting the CEO's time. But then Lamarre said enthusiastically, "Hop on a plane and go get the drone and bring it back to headquarters. Let's find a place for it in our shows!" CEO actions like this become legendary in creative organizations. It sets the right kind of tone at the top. And of course, the story spread throughout Cirque in a matter of weeks. People realized that not only did upper-level management want to hear new ideas, but would also act on them and give credit to the people who found them. David Novak, the former CEO of Yum Brands, talks often about creating a culture of purposeful recognition to drive engagement and results. Novak was always on the lookout for people who did their jobs well -- and was quick to thank them for their passion. This philosophy is well-heeled at Cirque.
Cast talent, don't recruit
Cirque wants to find the best possible talent -- from creative directors to acrobats to costume designers. Rather than writing a detailed job description and following traditional recruiting protocols, it casts talent instead. Prospects audition for their role and convince casting directors they're the "right" person at the "right" time for Cirque to bring into the organization. In Lamarre's mind, casting is far superior to traditional recruiting. "When you're recruiting, you're trying to fill a specific role. When you cast, you find the best person in the world," according to Lamarre.
Fit is a small word with huge impact
There is one important caveat. Regardless of how talented an individual may be, always take a pass if he or she doesn't fit into the culture of the organization. The show is the star at Cirque. Individual stars must understand and embrace this mantra. Otherwise, they'll destroy the culture of the team, show, or even the entire organization. Once the right person has been cast, then it's important to give them plenty of opportunity to shine, grow, and develop. Cirque looks for potential and ambition. "It's a two-way street. We have massive opportunities for a rising star to lead an entire production, but they must let us know it's their passion. Whenever we promote someone from within it sets a great example for everyone else in the organization. They know the sky is the limit."
Define the sandbox
Welby Altidor and Jamie King were the creative directors behind the hit Michael Jackson ONE at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. When I was meeting with King and Altidor backstage, they told me something that was counterintuitive. Creatives do their best work, they said, when they have boundaries. Before they enlightened me, I assumed leaders were supposed to let creative talent do their own thing, in their own weird way, and somehow magic was made. Not so. Lamarre phrased it somewhat differently, "If you don't provide them with clear direction -- and define the sandbox for them -- they will waste time and spin their wheels." At the end of the day, even creative geniuses need boundaries and guidance.
Cirque has a unique approach to leadership. Instead of hiring someone from "the outside" to direct a new show, or conversely, assigning an internal creative director to helm the production, it relies on a hybrid approach. It does both. It's a strange leadership mix that produces spectacular results. Cirque finds the best external creative director for a new show and has him or her work side by side with a seasoned internal professional. This ensures Cirque infuses each show with a fresh perspective, a unique signature style, while also hedging against the cost of an external star spending months decoding Cirque's culture and processes. Other organizations should give this leadership structure a shot if they want to supercharge creativity.