“Only when the questions become more important than the answers will the solutions emerge.”
A while back the folks at Kellogg’s Innovation Network offered me the opportunity to engage in a dialogue that was a genuine treat. They had talked the director of Cirque de Soleil’s Mystere into letting us get a behind the scenes look at the business of how the people and the show come together.
Here are 8 key lessons for business leaders that I learned.
- Customer Engagement: Emotion, emotion, emotion. It’s hard to imagine anyone that would go to Mystere and not find a wide range of impactful and divergent emotions. I found myself at times in awe of the what a human body could do, lost in the visual imagery of the art of the spectacle, laughing at the acts of the clowns, while the engineer in me kept wondering – how did they do that! It’s that power of emotional connection that all businesses wish they could achieve instead of what most businesses do – cutting costs to deny you service (even to point of creating customer terrorists). This was truly an engineered emotional experience.
- Talent Selection: The actors are sought from a pool of the best athletes, musicians, and dancers in the world. The “best” isn’t just a mirror of a leader (i.e. the model emulates the leader) but a diversity of thought, geography, and ideas to ensure a level of organic renewal and energy to the show. It’s about bringing the whole person and their creativity to the stage.
- Development: Two thoughts emerged as I listened to the Mystere team. First, this was a leadership team that any CEO would be proud of. They have all come up through the ranks, demonstrated their craft, believe in the mission of Mystere and showed a degree of respect and caring for each other and valuing the contribution of the entire team in a way I found something to be proud of. I also learned that they are SERIOUSLY vested in developing critical thinking skills and whole brain thinking.
- Process: When a new Cirque show opens there is process that it goes through (akin to new product development). There is an ideation stage to formulate the base product (such as Mystere, O, Zumanity). Then there is a creative process between the director, artists, and technicians to formulate the theatrics by mixing a combination of the three into a “flow”. Then there are the rehearsals – with a heavy dose of safety management (it’s easy to see where a missed move could result in death). The opening is a “perfecting” period to get the recipe and routine locked down, and finally it’s “locked” in. If I recall correctly, the “baking” took 18 months. This is followed by ongoing quality and safety procedures and practices (akin to Six Sigma perfection and OSHA level safety awareness).
- Alternative Business Model: Think about what Cirque did to the circus business in general. It elevated the art of the circus actors to new levels, created an accessibility to audiences by recrafting the circus experience as fun, stage, art, and form, and restructured the business economics at a premium to market. Wouldn’t we all love to create the game changer business model?
- Innovation logic: New ideas are always looked at to give even a long running show like Mystere an organic nature. As the director stated, each new idea has to be fully worked out and goes through an R&D process that often “leaves a dumpster full of ideas”. While we did not discuss how many new ideas enter the pipeline – it’s many and only a few make it to the end after a rigorous and valued test and learn process.
- On-boarding: An artist must first do their own personal homework by watching videos and studying the character. Once they have studied for a few weeks the artistic director will work with them on stage for about 2 weeks (2 to 3 times a week). This time is used so the artist can learn the character movement. It is also a time for the artistic director to see if the artist could bring something new to the character. Then they spend a week working with props and costume pieces. Once the artist is comfortable there is a full show audition – staging with other artists. Then they are ready for the show. It takes an artist about a week in the show to feel comfortable.
- Coaching to Win: The KIN attendees watched the last rehearsal of a new member and then saw him in the actual show later that evening. One thing I noted was how the artistic director coached the new actor. There were no incentives, no stick, just a calming guiding hand with the language of any great football coach focusing on how to draw on strengths and downplay and mitigate weaknesses by drawing on the combined strengths of the entire team.
A few lessons for all of us…