#TBT: How Your Organization Can Be as Awesome as Cirque du Soleil

Happy #TBT. To celebrate, we’re sharing an oldie-but-goodie post from Jim: How Your Organization Can Be as Awesome as Cirque du Soleil.

This morning [2009], I’m savoring the memories of the Santa Monica premiere of Cirque du Soleil: KOOZA.

If you’ve never seen a Cirque show, this is a great one to start with: funny, silly, crowd-pleasing, fast-paced. Some of their work is a bit more serious, but this show just kicks out the jams and has fun with the audience.

It was spectacular. It was inventive. It was athletically impressive. It was comically fresh. The atmosphere on the pier and under the big top was exciting, stylish and welcoming. The people working concessions and merchandise were knowledgeable and friendly.

In other words, it was everything live events can be at their best, and the crowd responded with child-like delight (not surprising from the many children in the crowd, but I saw more than one distinguished-looking, suit-wearing, gray-haired business type laughing aloud and following the action on stage with a huge smile).

But you already knew Cirque was good.

Now I’m going to explain why they’re so good.

It’s because they focus on building from strength, not fixing weaknesses.

And as a result, over time, they’ve gotten really good at a few important things.

• First, there’s a vision. It’s a little different from show to show, but it can be summed up by the phrase “Tout est possible” or “All is possible.” It’s what Guy Laliberté meant, perhaps, when he was going into space a couple weeks ago and said that you can “either nurture fear or dreams.” The creative vision of each show has a different flavor, but it comes out of one very powerful, long-term vision of possibility.

• Second, they do what it takes to execute. From the start, even when the organization was poor, Cirque found a way to make the costumes and the performances special. Here’s what Carmen Ruest, one of Cirque’s founding members, told me a few months ago:

“I’ve seen it [Cirque du Soleil] go from playing for the family at dinner. I did that, and just playing and just giving entertainment to people to get a good beer and sandwich for lunch. What I say is never give up your dream, and if you really, truly believe in your vision, it can happen. It does need creativity, and creativity is still happening and rolling with a budget of 25 cents or 25 million. Ideas and the dream and the vision will always be there.”

The point is that even when Guy, Carmen and the rest were doing guerilla performances on the street, they made it special. They executed on the vision with whatever they had at hand.

Now what they have at hand is probably the greatest performing arts creativity factory in the world.

• Speaking of which, the third thing they do well is marshal resources and skills. Visit Cirque du Soleil’s world headquarters in Montreal sometime. Not only do they have massive (arena-size) rehearsal areas, they also have workshops (ateliers) where they can create any costume item for any performer in any Cirque show worldwide at any time. They’ve created profiles of each performer’s exact specifications and can produce a hat for a clown in Macao today and have it to him tomorrow if needed.

This didn’t happen overnight. It took a process of being committed to getting good at this and, by the way, caring about the little things, like getting exactly the right hat to each performer. Many other organizations would have compromised in a hundred little ways, and the result of that compromise is that they are not Cirque du Soleil.

• Fourth, they innovate like crazy. Nothing lasts forever at Cirque: new shows, new props, new directors, new locations. Each show is contemporary, but it’s also in keeping with the Cirque tradition.

• Fifth, they build partnerships. Cirque has a lot of friends and does business with a lot of people because they believe in the value of collaboration. Whether it’s a content partner like the Beatles or a marketing partner like Goldstar or others, they collaborate like crazy.

Which makes for an interesting contrast to the many organizations for whom success, at whatever level, is a great excuse to be arrogant and pushy. Cirque’s got all those organizations beat success-wise, but they don’t fall victim to that kind of arrogance, probably because it’s not in their nature.

Isn’t it interesting that some people take success as an opportunity to be the jerk they’ve always wanted to be? Organizations too, but they’re more likely to get insular and smug, certain of being right and inert to change.

In fact, it may be the very smugness that some organizations develop once they’ve had some success that is the first step in that organization’s decline.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Cirque du Soleil is staffed by nice people.

And if you or your successful organization don’t get why that’s important, my advice to you is that you’d better stay on top of your game because you probably haven’t built up a reservoir of support in the outside world for when things stop going your way. You know who you are.

So in summary, you can be mind-boggling awesome like Cirque du Soleil if you’re willing to see through a compelling creative vision however you must, double down your investment in the things that it takes to see them through, tear down the past constantly and no matter how successful you get, be nice.

Put on your red clown nose and remember that this whole thing we’re doing is all about enjoying life more. Don’t be so solemn and for cripe’s sake, don’t take yourself so seriously.

After all, the clowns of Cirque du Soleil have already proven that you can be massively, overwhelmingly successful while wearing giant striped pants and getting shot with a confetti cannon.

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