“From a tiny spark a great fire was kindled and its flames warmed the world.”
Cirque du Soleil is one of the 32 organizations that William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre examine in their book, Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win. The strategies, practices, and leadership styles of these organizations may in some respects seem “unconventional, eccentric, odd, etc.” However, they help to explain how organizations (as diverse as Anthropologie, Cirque du Soleil, Commerce Bank, DPR Corporation, GSD&M, IBM’s Extreme Blue, ING Direct, the Pixar Animation Studio, and Southwest Airlines) have achieved extraordinary success in the “hypercompetitive marketplace” to which the authors refer.
However, and this is a key point, Taylor and LaBarre correctly note that there’s a significant difference “between learning from someone else’s ideas and applying them effectively somewhere else.” Presumably Cirque du Soleil’s founder, Guy Liberté, and his associates rigorously examined dozens of other organizations while formulating and later refining their own strategies, practices, and leadership styles. In fact, that process never ends in “maverick” organizations such as Cirque du Soleil as their leaders continue to learn much of great value, especially what would not work and/or would not be appropriate for their organization.
Cirque du Soleil: The Spark – Igniting the Creative Fire That Lives Within Us All is an entertaining as well as an informative explanation of Cirque du Soleil’s “magic,” with the material for the book created by its former president and COO of the company’s Creative Content Division, Lyn Heward, and written by John U. Bacon. The performances are the result if a multiple of processes that include talent recruitment, auditions, orientation, intensive training, collaboration, auditions for a specific assignment, rehearsals (if selected), and continuous improvement during performances. As I read the book, I was reminded of the research conducted by Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University to understand what produces peak performance. Natural talent is important but the critical factor is a total commitment to (on average) 10,000 hours of highly-disciplined, sharply-focused practice under strict and expert supervision. My guess is that all of Cirque du Soleil’s peak performers meet (if not exceed) that commitment.
This book is about both art and science. It is also about passion that elevates and a drive for perfection that is relentless. (My impression is that perfection is the norm to which all involved are held accountable.) Not everyone who reads this book will have the creative fire within them ignited. Many of them will not want to. However, there is something of substantial value for every reader to learn about the freedom that can only be achieved through order and structure, about the joy that can only be experienced after many painful personal sacrifices. Even within the expansive and ingenious infrastructure on stage that each Cirque du Soleil performance requires, there are limits to how high its artists can ascend but there are no limits to how high and how far the human spirit can…unless those limits are self-imposed.
Note: I recently re-read this book before beginning to formulate questions for an interview of Skywotsky. With all due respect to current business bestsellers, none offers more and better insights of immediate and substantial value.
Mastering an “Acquired Skill”
According to Slywotsky, there are three phases of what he calls “value migration”: In “inflow,” the initial phase, a company starts to absorb value from other parts of its industry because its business design proves superior in satisfying customers’ priorities; the second phase, “stability,” is characterized by business designs that are well matched to customer priorities and by overall competitive equilibrium; in “outflow,” the third phase, value starts to move away from an organization’s traditional activities toward business designs that more effectively meet evolving customer priorities. Slywotsky explains that Part I of this book describes the basic rules of Value Migration” and the workings of what he refers to as “the new game of business.” As when playing chess, winning at this game requires an understanding of the individual pieces (i.e. when to deploy them and how to capture them). One must master basic moves and simple techniques such as openings, traps to avoid, end-game moves, etc.
It is also important to understand the the importance of controlling (as in chess) “the four central ones.” In business as in chess, one must become familiar with certain “basic patterns” which will ultimately determine success or failure. These “patterns” are examined in Part II. There are seven: Multidirectional Migration (from steel to materials), Migration to a Non-Profit Industry (airlines), Blockbuster Migration (pharmaceuticals), Multicategory Migration (coffee), From Integration to Specialization (computing), From Conventional Selling to Low-Cost Distribution, ands finally, From Conventional Selling to High-End Solutions. Slywotsky shifts his attention in Part III to explaining how to play the Value Migration “game” well on a day-to-day basis. He identifies certain specific initiatives to take which help to (a) avoid value loss and (b) preempt the next cycle of value growth. “The final chapter of the book focuses on the increasingly high-stakes nature of the decisions that determine future value growth.”
There are more than a dozen charts which effectively illustrate Slywotsky’s key points. For example, Figure 15-1 presents “The Grand Masters of Value Growth” and identifies them, their key moves, and the value each created (in terms of billions of dollars) from 1980 until 1994. All of these visionary leaders (Welch, Walton, Vagelos, Gates, Petersen, Grove, Malone, Platt, Noorda, Iverson, and Kelleher) focused on making the right moves and thereby created enormous value for their respective companies. “Business chess is a game that is as demanding as [football and basketball], but in very different ways. It is not physical stamina, but stamina of thought. It is not transactional concentration, but constant shuttling between a focus on the current move and imagining the next several moves out. It is an unrelenting exercise of matching patterns on the current game board to the countless patterns in your mind.”
Slywotsky concludes the final chapter with a suggestion that this question be asked: What five moves will capture most of the given industry’s value growth? “Give yourself a couple of months to analyze and assimilate the grand masters’ key moves. Then come back and determine the five (or fewer) critical moves for your company.” In this exceptionally thought-provoking book, Slywotsky indicates why he would be an indispensable guide throughout that difficult but necessary process.
His new book, Demand: Creating What People Love Before They Know They Want It, will be published by Crown Business (October 2011).