How can leaders help their teams combat change exhaustion — or step out of its clutches? Too often, organizations simply encourage their employees to be resilient, placing the burden of finding ways to feel better solely on individuals. Leaders need to recognize that change exhaustion is not an individual issue, but a collective one that needs to be addressed at the team or organization level. First, pause to acknowledge when a significant change is happening, and the discomfort that comes with it. Second, adopt a learning mindset and model for your team that it’s normal to be continuously evolving, especially in the face of ongoing uncertainty. Third, make plans, but accept that you and your team will likely deviate from them. Lastly, invest in simple rituals that the team can do together to reduce stress.
Re-orgs, leadership transitions, new technologies. Pre-Covid, many employees already were experiencing change fatigue, defined as feeling apathetic towards or overwhelmed by too many organizational changes in a row.
When Covid hit, everything changed. We remember a tweet from digital health consultant Simon Terry that resonated with us: “Change fatigue. Resilience fatigue. Agility fatigue. WFH fatigue. Video-conference fatigue. Online schooling fatigue. Restriction fatigue. Conflict fatigue. Fatigue fatigue. 2020 – the international year of fatigue.” The heightened level of uncertainty in both our work and home lives pushed many of us into change exhaustion. Gartner found that employees’ ability to cope with change in 2020 was at 50% of pre-pandemic levels.
How can leaders help their teams combat change exhaustion — or step out of its clutches? Too often, organizations simply encourage their employees to be resilient, placing the burden of finding ways to feel better solely on individuals. Leaders need to recognize that change exhaustion is not an individual issue, but a collective one that needs to be addressed at the team or organization level.
Based on research we did for our book Big Feelings, here are four practices leaders can use to help their team or organization collectively combat change exhaustion.
Pause to acknowledge change, and the discomfort that comes with it.
Navigating uncertainty requires that we push back against our natural impulse to run from discomfort. When faced with anxiety, we tend to immediately jump into action-mode. Psychologists call this “anxious fixing,” and it doesn’t help us, or the people around us. Rather than addressing the root cause of our anxiety, we work ourselves into exhaustion trying to find immediate relief.
Say a team is changing its return-to-office plan. If you’re a leader, you may react by trying to drum up excitement and send a flurry of emails with new dates and timelines, without stopping to acknowledge the emotional toll the shift might be taking on your people. Chances are your team is weary of new announcements and another plan for coming back to the office. Make it a priority to set aside time in an upcoming meeting for people to share their feelings, voice concerns, and ask questions.
This practice can be helpful outside of Covid-related uncertainty, like when someone joins the team. Gartner’s study found that smaller scale, personal changes — getting assigned to a new manager or moving to a new team — were 2.5 times more fatiguing than larger transformational changes like mergers or acquisitions. But how often do leaders pause when changing team assignments and give voice to the discomfort that employees may feel from these changes? We recommend having an employee’s former manager meet with both the employee and the employee’s new manager to talk through the details of the change, acknowledge the anxiety the employee may be feeling, and create space for the employee to share their emotions and ask questions.
Adopt the mantra, “I am a person who is learning _______.”
Sitting with uncertainty helps us confront the fact that we don’t have all the answers. Of course, that can be frightening, especially if you’re someone who likes to feel in control. To help yourself and your team shift from anxiety to a growth mindset, reframe the situation. When we tell ourselves, “I am a person learning to ______” versus “I can’t do this” or “I need to have this all figured out already,” we start to see ourselves as empowered agents of change.
Here are a few examples of how you can reframe the not knowing:
- Instead of “I don’t know enough to manage people in a remote environment. I can’t do this,” tell yourself, “I’m learning to be a great manager in a remote environment.”
- Instead of “I’m a nervous wreck about doing in-person presentations again” tell yourself, “I’m learning how to present in front of live audiences again.”
We recommend doing this as an exercise with your team by asking them to fill in the phrase, “I am a person learning to____” or “We are a team learning to _____.” It can be helpful to hear what others are navigating, so individual team members feel less alone and can more easily support each other. It can also be useful to better understand each person’s comfort level with uncertainty. (You can take our uncertainty tolerance assessment here.) If you know everyone on your team prefers to avoid uncertainty, for example, you can take extra steps to ensure that everyone understands the path forward.
Make a plan from which you will deviate.
In the face of uncertainty, we have to work extra hard to figure out what we should do next. Our brains are hardwired to recognize patterns. When confronted with a known challenge (e.g. filling out a quarterly report), we can simply think, “Here’s how I did this last time. I’ll do that again.”
Uncertainty breaks that mechanism. “You feel you have to pay closer attention to everything that’s going on, because you’re not confident about what you should do,” psychologist Dr. Molly Sands told us. “That’s why uncertainty is so exhausting.”
That’s also why it’s easy to get stuck in analysis paralysis: our minds are swamped as they zig and zag through a million future possibilities. So how can you figure out a path forward under these circumstances?
At NASA, Dr. Laura Gallaher told us, teams refer to plans as “Plans from which we deviate.” Dr. Gallaher explained, “The benefit of planning is doing the thinking around what we will do when something happens. The value is in the process and the journey, not in the specific agenda.” In other words, the key is to plan, but not see our plans as set in stone. Instead, view them as reassurance that we’re prepared to face what comes next.
We recommend using similar language with your teams. By adopting a more flexible mindset while planning, you can help your people get less frustrated when things inevitably shift and be more willing to see the journey as a learning experience.
Invest in rituals.
Studies show that rituals or habits can go a long way towards reducing our stress levels during times of uncertainty. In fact, researchers have found that it doesn’t even matter what the ritual is. Simply doing the same thing at the same time can improve our mental health. Don’t believe us? That’s okay, studies have also proven that rituals help people feel better, even when they don’t believe that rituals work!
It can be hard to stick to rituals as an individual within a larger organization. We’ve often added meditation or lunch breaks to our calendars, only to have another meeting scheduled over them or to find ourselves unable to tear ourselves away from our constantly pinging inboxes.
Organizational consultant Amy Bonsall, who helps organizations collectively achieve well-being, suggests teams ask: How can we incorporate rituals as part of our days? Bonsall says it doesn’t matter what specifically teams do, as long as it is collective and centers on what matters most to that team (for example: energy boosting, creativity, or connection). She suggests starting each meeting with a short centering practice, like collectively closing your eyes and breathing for a minute. Or doing a daily 15-minute stand up where everyone shares something that is inspiring them.
There is no doubt that uncertainty is anxiety-inducing. The key is to not let employees struggle alone, but to collectively acknowledge and address the challenges. With the right tools, you can help your team gain confidence in your ability to better handle whatever comes next together — whether that means establishing a “plan from which you’ll deviate” or putting into practice a few new rituals (even if you don’t believe in them).
How the Best Teams Keep Good Ideas Alive
Leaders face rising pressure to include more voices in day-to-day decision making. Soliciting diverse perspectives across the organizational hierarchy makes good business sense: It’s been shown to improve innovation and help employees feel valued and avoid burnout. But have these pressures resulted in more ideas reaching fruition for the average team? Not really.
In our work as researchers, consultants, and teachers, we’ve seen that “good intentions” aren’t enough when it comes to implementing employees’ ideas. Leaders have plenty of stories and tactics to encourage people to share their ideas — and as many reasons for rejecting them. Research shows that asking people to speak up without listening to what they say can be counterproductive. Energetic star employees can become discouraged and even quit when they’re invited to share ideas that don’t go anywhere compared to when they’re not invited at all.
Many leaders feel stuck. They know that employee perspectives are crucial for retention and innovation, but they struggle to single-handedly create a culture where employees are empowered both to speak up with ideas and to see them through — where it’s the good idea that matters, rather than the role or status of the person who initially raises it. Based on our research on “voice cultivation,” we’ve identified several tactics leaders and their teams can use to help ensure good ideas make it to implementation.
Voice cultivation can overcome initial rejection
To understand how good ideas come to fruition or die on the vine, we spent two years in a health care organization tracking instances of “upward voice” — that is, employees’ constructive ideas for improving organizational or team functioning. We witnessed many rejections, but we also found that around a quarter of the hundreds of ideas we followed were ultimately implemented.
The ideas that made it shared a process we came to call “voice cultivation”: the collective, social process through which employees help lower-power team members’ voiced ideas reach implementation. There were five specific tactics we saw team members engage in to resuscitate initially rejected ideas and then keep them alive over time: amplifying, developing, legitimizing, exemplifying, and issue raising. Team members in most work settings can adapt and apply these tactics strategically.
Publicly repeating someone else’s good idea, especially at later times and through multiple communication channels, can help push an idea forward. This is particularly true for those trying to influence authority figures. In the clinic, we observed many instances of this. For example, a nurse shared how overwhelmed she was with clinic calls that limited her in-clinic nursing work and proposed different strategies for handling calls. The doctor thanked her but rejected her idea because the problem was huge and “[couldn’t] be fixed.” However, the idea lingered, and other team members brought up the nurse’s idea again even while she was out on maternity leave. By the time she returned, the team was experimenting with different call-routing strategies.
Similar amplification tactics were evident among women staffers in the Obama administration. According to the Washington Post, “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” And during a recent conversation at NYU Law, Justice Sonia Sotomayor described how she and the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg overcame constant interruptions and appropriation of their ideas by amplifying each other’s ideas. In our latest executive workshop at Harvard, Dr. April Camilla Roslani, a surgeon and university dean, shared that she encouraged her team “to repeat or echo good ideas in the event that they are missed or not valued and to recognize the person who brought them up originally.” Amplifying allows anyone who hears a good idea to ensure that it’s not lost.
Sometimes giving an idea the benefit of the doubt is sufficient. We saw team members keep rejected ideas alive by asking clarifying questions that helped them and others better understand them. This strategy is particularly helpful in interdisciplinary teams, where people from different professions and genders often speak past each other, using different jargon and linguistic patterns. The difficulties and opportunities posed by an idea that are salient to some team members may be invisible to others. Developing one another’s ideas helps make them legible across the team.
Vouching for ideas that you believe in is critical for their success. We saw team members keep ideas alive by sharing examples of a similar personal experience or of how a similar idea worked at a competitor or admired peer institution, or by describing how the idea could be beneficial and doable at their organization. It prevented ideas from lower-power members from being dismissed.
We’ve seen the importance of this tactic even outside organizations. For example, La Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an organization of farmworker women, wrote an open letter in which they legitimized the workplace sexual harassment experiences of their “sisters” in Hollywood, helping prompt the creation of the Time’s Up legal defense fund.
Researchers who study innovation and conflict highlight the importance of discussing ideas that are tangible rather than amorphous. Finding a way to show preliminary evidence that a previously rejected idea is feasible and important can help revive it. In keeping with the saying that it is sometimes better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, if you’re lower in the organizational hierarchy, taking the initiative to demonstrate in small ways how an idea can actually work in practice or to collect data as part of your day-to-day work can prompt discussions that help keep an idea alive.
Allies can exemplify, but the idea holder can also engage in this work. For example, we observed a receptionist propose that staff should have a seat in leadership team meetings — an idea that was rejected when the team leader explained that a similar proposal didn’t receive enough support a few years back. Though the idea was rejected several more times, the receptionist volunteered to liaise between the team and leadership, making herself indispensable to both and earning a seat at the leadership table.
Supporting an idea does not mean unconditional support. Publicly calling out the weaknesses associated with an idea can keep it alive by providing allies the chance to openly generate solutions and address concerns directly. In fact, we found the best way to “kill” an idea was to not raise issues or name specific weaknesses, preventing allies from having an opening to address concerns. Acknowledging all the barriers an idea would face helped the idea holder prepare and helped allies engage in joint problem solving. Issue-raising is not about silencing but rather acknowledging that it might take time and work for an idea to find its footing.
Promoting voice cultivation
To make sure their employees’ good ideas get a better chance at implementation, leaders should train their teams to engage in voice cultivation. By introducing voice cultivation to their teams, leaders:
- Set the tone that team members can build each other up or at minimum grant each other the benefit of the doubt
- Promote teamwork rather than competition by rewarding team members for developing others’ good ideas
- Provide practical behaviors the team can engage in and recognize
- Create accountability structures outside of the leaders’ own good intentions
That last point can be tricky for leaders since they’re setting up conditions through which their team can wield some collective power in pushing ideas through to implementation — ideas the leader may not always support. However, they might find longer-term benefits in employee morale by modeling voice cultivation in their teams, and they might also find it useful in meetings where they’re the lower-power team member.
Here are two tools leaders can use to promote voice cultivation on their teams.
Choose the right tactics
A vital feature of leadership is to name and give meaning to vital issues that others intuit but may lack the language to articulate or feel they have the permission to address. This is absolutely the case for voice cultivation. By sharing the concept of voice cultivation with their teams and helping team members reflect on opportunities to implement cultivation tactics, leaders can set the stage for active voice cultivation. Doing so may offer leaders the secondary benefit of setting a tone of psychological safety and inclusiveness on their teams, by emphasizing that they believe everyone has important contributions to make in both raising ideas and seeing them through.
To assist leaders in bringing voice cultivation to their teams, the following table presents an overview of the cultivation tactics and offers example reflection questions to help team members reflect on opportunities to implement these tactics in their own work. Leaders can share this information to spark a discussion as part of a launch for a new team or as part of a “relaunch” for a team seeking to reset its norms and work processes. Other teams that are ongoing may already be using voice cultivation tactics, and leaders can further advance progress by recognizing, naming, and encouraging their continued use.
Consider the environment
Voice cultivating tactics are most powerful when they’re responsive to why an idea was initially rejected. For example, if those with the power to greenlight an idea don’t think the idea is important or possible, amplifying is the wrong tactic, but legitimizing it could provide the support needed to push it forward. This is particularly true of ideas that ask those in power to give up or change something that’s important to them. In those instances, engaging in issue-selling is critical to fostering the opportunity for joint problem raising and joint problem solving. In the following table, we suggest some groupings of tactics — allyship, co-crafting, problematizing, and persistence — that can be responsive to specific forms of resistance.
From our work with leaders across industries, we’ve seen that many are embracing new behaviors to create more inclusive and participative work environments. Voice cultivation can be a helpful addition to their repertoire.
3 Strategies for Managing an Understaffed Team
Thanks to continuing resignations, many employees’ workloads have increased to untenable levels. There are a few common solutions for staffing shortages: redistributing work, hiring replacement employees and outsourcing lower-level tasks. But amid the Great Resignation’s persistent talent shortage, many managers are finding that their usual go-to solutions aren’t enough. The author presents three strategies for managers struggling with understaffed teams.
With job resignations still up 23% above pre-pandemic levels, many organizations are short-staffed. When just a few employees resign, their workloads can usually be redistributed among the remaining employees. Indeed, resources abound to help managers fairly divide workload and to help employees manage the increased workload. However, as departments of 50 become departments of 35 and teams of 10 become teams of seven, workload redistribution is an untenable long-term solution.
In addition to redistributing work, there are a couple common solutions for staffing shortages: hiring replacement employees and outsourcing lower-level tasks. But amid the Great Resignation’s persistent talent shortage, many managers are finding that their usual go-to solutions aren’t enough. Here are three strategies for managers struggling with understaffed teams.
Rethink Project Calendars
One of the fastest ways to turn high performers into low performers is to allocate their time to so many different projects that they don’t have time to think deeply. For example, in my work with a global insurance company, as the number of treasury managers dwindled, one historically high-performing treasury manager found herself spending 10% of her time on each of 10 major project teams — with no time to spare for her individual job responsibilities. The result was weekly calendars full of double-booked meetings, multiple frustrated teams, and poor results.
It’s critical to prioritize projects and defer what you can. For example, does there really need to be a system upgrade every year, or is every other year actually fine? What you can’t defer needs to be implemented more strategically and scheduled more carefully — preferably sequentially. If the treasury manager had four weeks allocated for each project, with a slack week in between for overages or previous project revisions, each of the 10 projects could have been accomplished within the year, and with two weeks to spare for some well-deserved PTO. Although it can be tempting to fight over scarce resources and demand your projects are the priority, as a manager, it’s more important to get employees’ focused effort rather than clock time. Stated differently, don’t just grab for whatever you can get — help employees be their best.
Prioritize Core Client Needs
Traditional business teaching emphasizes the importance of having a diverse portfolio of clients and products to minimize risk and make your business stronger. Indeed, focusing on only a few big clients is potentially precarious. However, when you’re in a situation where you can’t manage your entire client base well, giving everyone a little may prompt important unsatisfied clients to move on.
It’s a reoccurring theme across industries (e.g., investments, insurance, and health care) that the number of policies, customers, or patients that an employee is expected to manage has significantly increased — sometimes even doubling or tripling. For example, an asset manager I worked with at a multinational financial services company who two years ago was expected to call about 60 clients per week now has a client load of 246 per week. That comes out to fewer than 10 minutes per client with no time allocated for anything else, like meeting with new clients or conducting market research. No client was getting great service and the employee was working long hours and constantly under tremendous pressure. Unsurprisingly, they just accepted a new job.
Sometimes prioritizing clients involves firing clients, but there are less-drastic measures to try. For example, does every client really need a personal phone call every week, or might some be satisfied with a call every quarter accompanied by automated weekly emails or monthly newsletters? Also consider whether algorithms or even simple group sorting/filtering in Excel could be introduced to determine which client should be a priority on a given week — for example, those whose investments are currently experiencing market volatility. Ideally, a mid-range solution will be effective at reducing employee workload while maintaining your client base. But if not, you may need to prioritize your core clients over having a large portfolio of clients.
Find Quick Interventions
Look for interventions that can substantively improve employees’ daily work and be mastered in less than a week. For example, are there ways to automate data entry, such as converting paper forms into electronic forms that clients enter themselves? Could teaching employees a few formulas in Excel or creating report templates save hours of manual computations? Could three levels of approval be reduced to one, or could the dollar amount requiring approval be increased? Could a shared document repository be used to save the project lead hours of integrating feedback from 10 people’s emails?
Alternatively, if it’s the less-frequent tasks — for example, monthly financial or operational reports — that are the bane of your employees’ existence, try to make any process improvement interventions even shorter (ideally, a day or less). If you can, bring in external consultants or human resources to manage much of the design and rollout of the interventions to avoid further overwhelming an already overstretched workforce. Although investing in process improvement may be expensive, it’s likely much cheaper than recruiting, training, and managing a revolving door of employees who are all frustrated by broken processes.
. . .
Thanks to staffing shortages, many employees’ workloads have increased to untenable levels. For the workplaces running on a skeleton crew, now is the time to implement process improvement interventions, prioritize your core clients and products, and assign your employees to fewer concurrent projects — not more.
Cirque du Soleil’s Daniel Lamarre on How to Put Creativity at the Center of Your Strategy
Daniel Lamarre is the executive vice chairman of Cirque du Soleil, a position he took after serving for nearly two decades as the circus and entertainment company’s president and CEO. He is the author of, Balancing Acts: Unleashing the Power of Creativity in Your Life and Work, which describes how others can unleash Cirque’s creative management techniques, even if they’re not in the business of clowns and acrobats.
HBR editor in chief Adi Ignatius sat down with Lamarre in this episode of our video series “The New World of Work” to talk about:
- Reviving the company after a disastrous Covid-inflicted shutdown of Cirque’s operations and painful layoffs.
- His decision to leave a comfortable position as TV network CEO to “run away” and join the circus, and what it taught him about being true to his own values and ambitions.
- The surprisingly analytical side of Cirque, which relentlessly tweaks and perfects its show formulas based on continuous audience feedback.
“The New World of Work” explores how top-tier executives see the future and how their companies are trying to set themselves up for success. Each week, Ignatius interviews a top leader on LinkedIn Live — previous interviews included Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. He also shares an inside look at these conversations —and solicits questions for future discussions — in a newsletter just for HBR subscribers. If you’re a subscriber, you can sign up here.
ADI IGNATIUS: Daniel, welcome to the show.
DANIEL LAMARRE: I’m so happy and honored to meet you today. And it’s a great, great time to talk about creativity and how we’re going to innovate. So I’m blessed to have the opportunity to talk with you today.
ADI IGNATIUS: Well, thank you. We feel the same way. Just to set context, could you talk a little bit about Cirque du Soleil’s mission and maybe how you came to the company?
DANIEL LAMARRE: This company started with a bunch of street performers begging at the corner of the street and, move forward 10 years later, I had the opportunity to join the company when I thought the brand was ready to explode globally. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last two decades.
ADI IGNATIUS: You come to Cirque du Soleil, it has a mission, it has some initial success, but as you said, you’re trying to develop it, to scale it, to blow it up globally. Talk about that, the challenge of taking something that people love, because it is unique and maybe they love because it’s small, taking that brand and making it big.
DANIEL LAMARRE: And two famous teachers from your school, from Harvard, have described it in their Blue Ocean Strategy as we have developed a new category of show and I truly believe that’s what happened and that’s how we’ve been successful. Because if you try to describe a Cirque show, it’s very difficult. You will probably start by saying, it’s not a circus show. It’s not dense, it’s not theatrical. And I would say that it’s a blend of all of that and at the end of the day became a very unique global brand called Cirque du Soleil.
ADI IGNATIUS: We were talking before the show, and I said that my family fell in love with Cirque du Soleil, we were living in Hong Kong and we saw a couple of shows, and couldn’t believe them. This would’ve been in the 1990s. It was, as you say, such a departure. You mentioned that the authors of Blue Ocean Strategy, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne had highlighted Cirque du Soleil as an example of an innovative company. And their whole idea is that you find a blue ocean, an undeveloped market that’s brand new, you create a whole new category. So do you have any advice for people who aren’t in the circus business, how to find an open space that’s not being addressed already by business?
DANIEL LAMARRE: And really, the motivation for me to write a book was that I was motivated to promote creativity because that’s what I’ve learned. I had the opportunity through all those years to observe amazing creators, such as our founder, Guy Laliberté, but also international people like James Cameron and the Beatles, and watching them work has changed my personal and my professional life and really made creativity the forefront of everything I do. And today that’s what I want to do. I want to promote creativity because I take a very radical stand, which is that without creativity, there’s no company, there’s no organization. And I truly believe that.
ADI IGNATIUS: How do you manage creativity?
DANIEL LAMARRE: First and foremost I think it’s very important that you create an environment that nurtures creativity. You have to have your core business central in everything you do, and in your environment. In our case, the founder hired me a clown called Madame Zazou, and Madam Zazou became a symbol of what we are. And internally every day I used her to remind our employees what our core business is. I’m not suggesting that everybody is hiring a clown. I’m suggesting that everybody find the right symbol to bring out the core of what they do, a reminder of the purpose they have in life as an organization.
ADI IGNATIUS: So Ed Catmull, who was the very successful creative leader at Pixar for years, he was similar to you trying to unleash extraordinary innovation and creativity with each movie. But at the end of it, he almost wanted to kind of wipe everybody’s brains clear so that with the next project, they didn’t fall back into, “Well, this is how this company does things.” That there was a freshness with every project. Is that something that you think about as you’re creating new shows?
DANIEL LAMARRE: First and foremost, I don’t think of Cirque du Soleil as a hierarchy organization, and that’s why every time we produce a new show, I will create a cell with all of our creators and artists. I will say to all the administrative staff to stay away from them. I don’t want them to think about some HR policy or some financial issues. I want them to really breathe and sleep and eat, just thinking about making our next show very innovative, very entertaining. And that is very, very important that every show create an entertainment breakthrough. And that’s the challenge I give to the team every time we start a new show
ADI IGNATIUS: And you’ve had an amazing record of success. There are probably some shows that were not a success. Are there one or two examples you could talk about that didn’t work and maybe what you learned from that?
DANIEL LAMARRE: I think it’s very, very important that you understand that you take risk and sometimes you fail. And in our case, I remember we wanted to reinvent Vaudeville as we did with circus. And unfortunately using the brand of Cirque du Soleil was a big mistake because people were expecting to see an acrobatic show. And there was some learnings from that. And we took the time to do the postmortem and to evaluate why it didn’t work. To make my long story short, the reasons why it didn’t work is that we couldn’t bring the brand of Cirque du Soleil on a Vaudeville show. That was counterproductive. And that’s something that we’ve learned and we will always remember, you cannot put your brand on any type of shelves or in some situation or any type of product or services. So be very, very respectful of your brand.
ADI IGNATIUS: You can stretch your brand, but you don’t want to stretch it so far that it’s not who you are.
So you’re talking about creativity, encouraging creativity, sustaining it. I’m sure there are people watching this who say, “Yeah, okay, fine. This is a circus company. I work for nothing that exciting.” How is your message relevant to the large number of viewers we have who don’t happen to be in the circus business?
DANIEL LAMARRE: We are blessed because Cirque du Soleil is a creative powerhouse. But my point is more fundamental than that. My point is, it doesn’t matter for what company or what organization you are working. You cannot use an excuse that you’re not creative enough. If you’re not creative enough, it’s because you are not putting that priority in the forefront.
I can challenge anybody in any type of organization. You can be creative in your employees’ communication. You can be creative in your marketing. Most importantly, you can be creative in redesigning and innovating the way you are shaping your new products or your new services.
There is no excuse. Creativity has to be at the forefront, because if you don’t do that, then one day you will wake up and you will discover that your competitors have an edge on you and then you’re in trouble. So don’t wait for that. Just make sure that you are nurturing your creativity within the organization to keep your edge, to keep your leadership in whatever sector you are.
ADI IGNATIUS: You’re drumming up all that creativity within and trying to bring it out and celebrate it. How do you bring in the voice of the customer, of the consumer, as you’re in this creative mindset?
DANIEL LAMARRE: People will be surprised to see how an organization like us is so analytical. Every night, every show, we are asking the customer to react. And if for whatever reason we see that there is an act that is not liked as much as the others, we’re just going to take it out and we’re just going to replace it by a better act.
So it’s very, very important that you are listening all the time. Listening to your customer in priority, but also listening to your employees. You have to send a clear signal to your employees that you are on the lookout all the time for new ideas, new suggestions. And that’s what we’re trying to do here at Cirque, is listen to our customer, but also listen to our employees and mobilize them behind the mission, mobilize them behind our new shows that we also share the credit when we have a big success.
ADI IGNATIUS: There’s a passage in your book where you talk about when Guy Laliberté, the founder of Cirque, brought you into the company and you were already very successful in the PR and events business. And I think it was your parents who thought, “What? Run away and joined the circus?” Talk about how do we make these big life-changing decisions? How did you make that decision and what can we learn from that?
DANIEL LAMARRE: Obviously my parents, even my wife at the time, were not really excited about me leaving my job. I was the CEO of a TV network, and they were very proud of that. And the one thing that triggers the change is when Guy Laliberté said, “Daniel, I read that you wanted to be international, and it won’t happen to you with this Canadian TV network. If you want to be international, you have to join a circus.” And that was the trigger for me.
So you have to be true to your value and through your ambition. And even if it was a tough decision for me to join the circus, it was an easy decision when I learned and I realized that to become international, that was the right platform. And then after that, everything became clearer for me, and obviously I never regret that because I had the opportunity with Guy to travel the world and promote this most important global brand.
And I strongly suggest that when you are in front of a new opportunity, you should think about what’s your ambition. Where do you want to be five years from now? And I guess the answer will become clearer and your decision process will be much easier.
ADI IGNATIUS: That’s great advice. Let’s fast forward. You have this period of sensational growth, expansion, and then COVID hits and live performances are not possible. Obviously the company is hit hard. You end up with a new investor structure. So can you talk about how you survived that period and where the company is now?
DANIEL LAMARRE: That was a nightmare. That was the toughest period in my life, and I know it was for a lot of people in different sectors. But in my case, within 48 hours, I came from 44 shows to zero shows, went from a billion dollars of revenues to zero revenue. And my purpose in life, I took great pride in creating jobs for artists, and then I end up in a situation where I had to let go, not only 2,000 artists, but all of our 5,000 employees. That was a disaster, and for 15 months, I was struggling to make sure that the company can remain alive.
So imagine the meeting. You’re meeting with the bankers, you have to tell them, “I have no revenues. I have no shows. And by the way, I need $375 million more to sustain the relaunch of our company.”
The only reasons why I got their support and why I’m here now so happy about the outcome is the strength of the brand. It’s the brand that saved the company, because the bankers were convinced that the brand will make this company successful after the crisis, and that’s exactly what happened.
ADI IGNATIUS: I’m going to go to some audience questions. And George, who is watching on YouTube, asks how creativity can be implemented in our own lives, in our personal lives? What personal strategies can we follow to unlock that kind of creativity that you talked about?
DANIEL LAMARRE: I think it’s important that we’re beasts of habit, and that’s what you have to fight first. You have to do things differently all the time and you have to find ways to be inspired by reading more, by visiting events, by talking to inspiring people.
People that I had the opportunity to meet, like the Beatles and James Cameron and others, have changed my life because they brought me some fresh air. They brought me some new ways of seeing lives. And kill your habits, think differently and make your life much more fun by meeting people that are inspiring, by reading more. And at the end, which is also very, very important, spend the time to reflect. We don’t spend enough time reflecting and I strongly suggest that you do. And that’s what I’ve learned and that’s why my life now is fulfilled by more creativity. But at the end of it, much more fun.
ADI IGNATIUS: We take for granted now that there is a Cirque Beatles show in Las Vegas and that it’s amazing and so many of us have seen it. Talk a little bit about the process of getting the Beatles and their representatives to agree, which was pretty difficult.
DANIEL LAMARRE: For many, many years, all the live entertainment companies were chasing the Beatles to do a show with their catalog, their music catalog, and nobody succeeded. And it took me two years of my life negotiating with them because it was not about money. It was about making sure that we will respect their brand. And after spending quite a bit of time with the four of them, including Yoko at the time, we showed them respect by working the creative process side by side with them and not positioning ourselves as the salesman of their intellectual property, but we position ourself as true creative partners. And that’s why at the end of ethe day, it ended up being an amazing adventure. Not only did we loved it, but so did they, because they understood that we were two creative power forces that could work together and make something fantastic. And that’s why I’m so proud of that achievement.
ADI IGNATIUS: In the book there’s more detail, more granular detail about that process. Two people have asked pretty much the same question. How do you filter ideas? What is the creative process to pick a show idea, to decide the theme of the next show or shows that you’re considering?
DANIEL LAMARRE: We have a very specific creative process. It starts with three people. It starts with the director of the show, the creative director and the production director. And we give them a general mandate about what we are looking for in term of the new show. The three of them come to us and present to us a first synopsis of what the show should be. And then when we agree to the general concept of the new show, then we will add to that three person team probably 17 more, like costume designer, music designer, set designer, 20 people all together, working together to define the exact content of the show.
One thing that is very, very important in that process is we have regular checkpoints to make sure that the mandate we give them at the beginning of the process is respected all along, and they’re not losing themselves with other directions than the one we’re hoping for. It’s an organic process. It takes between 18 to 24 months to come to fruition from the day you start to the day of the opening. And we’re very respectful of time because it takes time to produce a good show, as it takes time to develop a new product, a new service. And that’s our process.
ADI IGNATIUS: When Cirque du Soleil was first out there, it was so different from anything we’d seen and it was amazing. Is it harder now to impress people since you’ve already stretched the envelope so much? Do they want more, more, more? Is it harder to impress them now?
DANIEL LAMARRE: It is. It is because the expectations are much higher. That’s why we have a huge challenge to remain relevant. And the way to do that is by investing a lot in research and development. And that’s what we do. We work in collaboration with a lot of universities around the world. We work with big companies, such as Samsung and Microsoft and others. We are in the lookout all the time, not only for new ideas, but for new technologies.
Human performance will remain the core of what we do, but we will expand in new digital platforms. We will expand on new technologies that are going to enhance the human performance. But it’s an ongoing challenge and you cannot be complacent and think that the formula you have right now will last forever because it won’t. You have to reinvent yourself all the time and that’s our biggest challenge, yes.
ADI IGNATIUS: Richard in Italy has a question that really asks about what you just said about new digital platforms. Do you have any plans to perform in the metaverse?
DANIEL LAMARRE: It’s a world obviously, it’s a universe, that we are definitely exploring as we’re going through right now. One thing I want to be clear, we will remain a live entertainment organization because that’s what we are great at doing. But on the other hand, through the crisis, we have developed a platform called Cirque Connect that has allowed us to keep our brand alive by showing different content on Cirque Connect. So now we’re going to go through metaverse and other technologies, other types of platforms that are available to us, and then we will have to define what kind of artistic content we’re going to bring there to remain very, very relevant to that new universe of technology. And yes, that’s something we are definitely going to explore.
ADI IGNATIUS: All right, we will watch this space. By the way, I love the fact that we’re getting questions from quite literally all over the world. And here’s one from Finland, from Jerry. Ultimately, how do you measure success?
DANIEL LAMARRE: First and foremost, we have the NPS, which is the net promoter scores. Say simply what we measure is, “Are you going to recommend our show to your friends and family?” And that satisfaction level is very, very important. And that’s something that we measure. So the first criteria, the most important one is the satisfaction of our customer. Then is how it impacts on the brand. Is your brand declining, or is your brand growing? And that’s something we measure on a regular basis. And obviously the financial impact is also important because you need to be profitable if you want to remain alive, but if you want to have the right financial resources to make sure that you can continue to invest in new shows. Those are the three criteria that we look the most.
ADI IGNATIUS: Jacqueline, who was watching on YouTube, notes that you said you share the credit when there’s a success. So her question is, what happens when there’s a failure or things don’t go as well? How do you process that with your teams?
DANIEL LAMARRE: At the end of the day, if you’re the CEO of the company, you are responsible for the failures. You have to tell to the group that that’s first and foremost your failure, that you accept it, but more importantly, that you’re going to learn from it. Then you invite them to learn from it as well. And that’s why it’s important you have to go to a postmortem, a good evaluation to define what we are going to learn from that failure. And you have to understand that you have to take risk all the time. You have to mitigate risk. You have to measure risk. But you cannot be afraid of taking risk because you had one failure. Yes, you have to have more success than failures if you want to remain alive, but you should take the time it takes to learn from your failure.
ADI IGNATIUS: Other than your book, are there any other good books you can suggest on this topic of creativity?
DANIEL LAMARRE: Yeah. There is a book obviously of Catmull that you talk about. I think it’s a great one, the guy from Pixar. I would also recommend to read the book from Bob Iger, from Disney. I think it’s a great book as well. Those two books put a lot of pressure on me because they were really, really great with two amazing organizations.
ADI IGNATIUS: In a similar vein, here’s a question from Julia from Boston: who inspires you?
DANIEL LAMARRE: A lot of people inspire me, obviously our founder Guy Laliberte, but also a guy like James Cameron. I was so, so rewarded to work with him on the live show that we did about Avatar. I was impressed by his intellectual curiosity. When he came to visit our creative center here in Montreal, I thought he will stay for an hour, he stayed for four hours because he wanted to know everything about our creative process. When Elon Musk went to visit our show, Kurios, in Los Angeles, he stayed three hours after the show, same attitude. He wanted to know everything about the technology we use, everything else. So the kind of people that are very, very impactful in our world, I’ve learned in watching them that the intellectual curiosity is probably something that had really inspired me to be now more focused and more curious when I have the opportunity to meet with people like that.
ADI IGNATIUS: Omar in Egypt asked how do you envision the future of entertainment, not just Cirque du Soleil, but more generally the future of entertainment in the next 10, 15, 20 years?
DANIEL LAMARRE: There are two schools of thought. One is saying, the future is only going to be through technology, new platforms and live entertainment is going to be absolute. The other school of thought is after the crisis, people understand now that it’s also important that you are going to see shows with real human beings. I personally believe that the two schools of thought are good. There will be more and more artistic content on new platforms, but I think live shows will remain a very, very popular form of entertainment, and that’s why we’re pursuing both at the same time in order to benefit from the new platforms, but remain a creative force for live artistic content.
ADI IGNATIUS: Not everyone on your team is a creative, and there’s a question from Shahid on LinkedIn, how do you balance? You’ve got the creative people and you’re always talking about them, but some of your stars are operational people working quietly to make sure things happen. How do you balance that?
DANIEL LAMARRE: Obviously, it’s a challenge today because creativity is at the forefront of who we are and we are perceived as a creative force, but the reality is we’re also logistically amazing because we tour with 150 people for each show around the world with 50 trucks of equipment, and in each city, you have to be local because we are a retail outlet in a city for two to three months. So those people are very, very important, and you are right in saying that we have to spend also the time to recognize their contribution to the success of the show, because they are integral in the success of the show. It’s more like an internal challenge than an external challenge, but we’re doing that. We’re doing that because they deserve our credit. I always say, today is the employees’ night in Montreal where we’re going to show our new show to our employees, and that’s the kind of event that we use to, again, thank our employees for their contribution to the success of the show wherever they are in our organization.
ADI IGNATIUS: We talk a lot about what the proper role of a CEO is, with a complex company, and we have a question from Sri Lanka about when you were CEO, how did you spend your time? How did you spend your day? What were your priorities?
DANIEL LAMARRE: The good news is I had a great team and because I had a great team, it allowed me to be able to focus on mobilizing our employees. I think that’s the number one responsibility of the CEO, because if the employees don’t believe in what you do, you’re bound to fail. So that was my number one priority is I love to go and walk in the building and go to the studio and meet with people, and more importantly, listen to them, because you learn a lot by listening to your employees. You go in a city where we’re presenting a show, our employees have been there for a month. They know more about what’s happening in that city than I do from my office in Montreal.
That’s something I spend a great deal of time of doing. Then after that, obviously reviewing the business model and spending a lot of time in the new business and new shows development, because this is very, very important. But again, nothing more important than mobilizing your employees behind your new priorities, behind your new objectives.
ADI IGNATIUS: Can you give us a hint about your next show?
DANIEL LAMARRE: First of all, I have to tell you that I’m very, very proud of our new show at Disney in Orlando, because we played with the intellectual property of Disney, that was a tribute to the animation of Disney, and this is a great show. We’re also working right now on two new shows. One is going to be about music. That’s going to be an arena show that is very impressive, and our new big top shows, we are going to shake up the entire environment within the tent that I hope is going to bring the customer experience to a new level.
ADI IGNATIUS: All right. So we’ve gone over time a little bit. There are a lot more questions, but I think we have to wrap this up, but Daniel Lamarre, thank you very, very much for being on the New World of Work.
DANIEL LAMARRE: Thank you to you. That was an honor to be here. Thank you very much.