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Women on unicycles? Neat idea…but not thrilling. Women on unicycles balancing bowls on their heads? OK now we’re getting somewhere. What if they rapidly toss the bowls up in the air to their partners while riding? Now THAT is jaw-dropping cool stuff.  I recently hosted a customer event for SAP at Cirque du Soleil’s Totem show in New York and enjoyed 2 hours of awe-inspiring acrobatic acts, fabulous make-up, costumes and special effects.

A-performance-of-Cirque-D-007.jpgTotem is the sixth Cirque du Soleil production I’ve seen and every experience has been unique, exciting, funny, and mind-boggling (e.g. How do they do that? How did they come up with that act?).  Begs the question…how does Cirque du Soleil continuously innovate and keep those creative juices flowing for nearly 30 years?

It turns out that the Arts industry has a very different perspective on creativity and innovation than we do in technology.  High tech is a race to the finish line, innovation cycles have become more rapid over time to gain competitive advantage. SAP offers 1-5 day Design Thinking Workshops to bring a user experience perspective to technology innovation. Customers walk away with executable plans and an aggressive timeline to implement. In contrast, Cirque du Soleil requires 2-3 years to fully develop a show concept.

And what does that process look like? Brainstorming? Consensus building? According to Daniel Lammare, President and CEO of Cirque du Soleil, creative friction is key and bad ideas are quickly eliminated. 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.

For those of us in the business world, slowing down may not seem like a feasible option but perhaps we need to accept that creativity is a journey, not a race. Cirque’s creative process involves extensive R&D, a network of global talent scouts seeking new and exciting performers, and ongoing exploration.  Innovation and creativity don’t come easy- or quick- they are the result of dedication and hard work supported by the company culture.

At a TED conference, Rhode Island School of Design president John Maeda said “In the business world, many people believe creativity is all about filling office spaces with red bean bag chairs, squishy balls, and colorful markers—kid stuff. People have the odd belief that creativity is a shortcut. That it’s easy. Creativity is an arduous process, one that forces you to be open and think imaginatively. That’s what many businesses want to do.  And that’s what artists do.”

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