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books - business 2008

The Spark (Cirque Du Soleil)

The Spark – Igniting the Creative Fire That Lives Within Us All

Cirque Du Soleil

Created by Lyn Howard and written by John Bacon

pg 25 Diane noticed my lingering gaze. You’ll see our show posters all over the building. It’s important to remind people that whatever they do for Cirque du Soleil – whether they’re acrobats or accountants – these shows are why you do what you do. It helps keeps us motivated.”

Never losing sight of the reason for your work – it was an idea I felt certain any business could benefit from.

pg 35 ”Well,” I said modestly to Diane, ”She’s probably a better gymnast than she is a singer.” Maybe so,” she said, still gazing at Cari with an appreciative smile. ”But I’ll tell you what’s important: she is very gutsy. And if a person is courageous and generous enough, we can teach them the rest. To me, creativity is, first and foremost, all about courage – a willingness to take risks, to try new things, and share the experience with others. And that girl’s as lionhearted as they come.”

pg 43 After unpacking, I found a fridge full of fresh fruit, a Cirque ID card, and an itinerary for my time here. I didn’t recognize any of the names of coaches, instructors, or directors on the list. But I was struck by the broad range of people I’d be meeting – from creative directors toe clowns. As Diane had promised, there was also a daunting list of activities, including training on the same bungee-trapeze I had seen on my first visit. (Amanda’s note – this is an interesting approach to ‘onboarding’…. like something similar I read at IBM or Microsoft.)

pg 45 At first, Bernard said, the creators studied other circuses. Later, they asked the artists to do the same. Over time, everyone at Cirque was drawing upon as many outside influences as possible, from almost every field – painting, film, music, you name it. This sort of cross-pollination, Bernard explained, was one of the keys to Cirque’s extraordinary freshness and vitality. (Amanda’s note: this is a key idea from IDEO’s innovation model.)

pg ”So how do you turn these random ideas into an act?” Deadlines!” He laughed. ”Of course, they always come too fast, but without them, your mind is not focused. With them, on the other hand, your panicked mind starts coming up with crazy ideas it never would have otherwise. If you have two days to design a transition from a trapeze act to a trampoline, you will think of something!” …. if there are too many restrictions, you stop thinking about what you can do and start thinking about what you cannot do. ”Picasso did not ask for approval from the legal department before he started painting Guernica.” Bernard added.

pg 47 ”Trust me: In this business – in all businesses – your people will rarely work harder than the boss. That’s why my first decision was to be at every show. If they had to be there, I did too.”

”The second thing I do is give them notes after each show about little things I noticed – what worked, what didn’t, what’s coming along. That way, they know I’m paying attention and their work matters. And I’ve learned not to give only negative notes. If you do that, after a while, whenever you give them a note, they just groan! So it’s important to be positive, too.”

”But the best thing I’ve done,” she said, ”is to help them see their work through the eyes of the audience.” … ”Watching a show from the audience lets them see how beautiful it all is,’’ she continued. ”They sit next to a woman seeing the show for the first time and understand why she cries at the end of the show! They finally see what they’ve been work for – why they’re sweating, training, and rehearsing so hard. … They never realized that it is the ensemble – the whole show, with all its parts – that is so evocative. After just one night in the audience, the artists themselves are transformed.

pg 48 The second thing I do is give them notes after each show about little things I noticed – what worked, what didn’t, what’s coming along. That way, they know I’m paying attention and their work matters. And I’ve learned not to give only negative notes. If you do that, after a while, whenever you give them a note, they just groan! So it’s important to be positive, too.”

… (about watching a show from the audience).. ”The same thing is true here in Montreal,” she said. ”If the cooks and the managers and the receptionists don’t go down to see a rehearsal once in a while, they forget what they are working for. They lose their connection with the final product. And that is certain death, I think, in a creative environment such as this. Maybe you are an accountant – but you are an accountant at Cirque du Soleil. You and what you do are special!”

pg 53 ”You mean a balance between safety and the artistic?” ”No!” he said. ”No! That is the most common misperception of what we do. There can be NO compromise on safety, and NO compromise on appearance. We must be a hundred percent safe, all the time, AND a hundred percent aesthetic.. And that is what makes it so challenging. That’s what forces us to be creative: no compromise!”

pg 56 ”If there is an accident – and we’ve had only a few – we fly out and conduct a thorough investigation. So far, it has usually been attributed to human error, like an unlocked harness or performance error; only very rarely is it related to equipment failure.”

”So it’s not your fault,” I said.

”No!” Rene exclaimed. ”It is still our fault, because it means we did not design it simply enough, or we did not train the artist well enough, or we did not stress to them enough how important double-checking their safety harness is. We cannot afford to blame the artist. It is too easy, and it would make us sloppy, knowing we can blame someone else. If something goes wrong, that means maybe we didn’t provide the right system for them to use.” (Amanda’s note: this is what I love about design thinking, and systems thinking…. but sad to think of all the organizations that don’t think this way – far easier to place blame.”

pg 63 Once again, however, I fell just short; clearly, I was afraid of overshooting the trapeze – or perhaps just afraid of grabbing it. It’s amazing how much we fear the unknown – even when the unknown carries with it the possibility of success. We are so determined to stick to our comfort zones that we learn to live with disappointment, as long as it’s familiar and safe. This was the lesson, I knew, this training session was all about. Our fears hold us back, make us fall short of our goals. Only by taking risks can we hope to accomplish the extraordinary.

pg 103 I told Maurice I found his anxiety surprising given the history of the show and the experience of the performers. He said, ”Au contraire, my friend! We face our fears every day. The fact is, we WANT to scare ourselves some – to reach our limits and then go beyond them.  We have to shove ourselves off the cliff before we start flying. The greatest danger is not failing but getting comfortable, of reaching a certain altitude and putting the show on auto-pilot.” (Amanda’s note – their answer to this is the Cirque form of cross-pollination – inviting those they encounter to do a workshop for their artists.)

pg 104 Looking around, Maurice said, ”I have become convinced that the more we nourish our artists and support staff – the more they’ll give back in return. Our goal is to make the artists comfortable in just about every way possible, so we can make them uncomfortable in their thinking – challenge them, destabilize them. The more we do that, the more they’ll throw themselves into their roles.”

pg 116 ”In fact, Cirque purposely teams up people from different backgrounds with different personalities, in the hopes that we’ll come up with something more original. Working with a teammate like Tai, I know I’m not in it by myself. And together, we came up with the right solution.”

pg 135 What caught my attention, though, was the warmth of her smile, and her liquid, expressive eyes. Rarely had I seen anyone more fully present, more completely alive. I couldn’t resist smiling and waving good-bye. With her hands spread on the floor for balance, she waved back – with her right foot. And that, I realized, was Cirque’s creative spirit, the creative spark that burns within us all; it was as innocent and powerful as the improvised wave of a little girl’s foot.

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