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What’s the Optimal Workplace for Your Organization?

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As we reach the two-year mark of the pandemic, now is the right time for many leaders to rethink how and where their employees work and collaborate. Should businesses call employees back into the office or leave them working remotely? Is it time to try out a new way of working all together? Lost in the ongoing debate, particularly in the popular media, is a simple insight: There is no one right answer because managers need to tailor their working environment to the business needs of their organization. This decision can be tough: recent surveys find that what employees think works best for them may limit the potential of the business as a whole.

To help in this process, we propose a framework to guide managers on identifying the optimal work configuration for maximizing the effectiveness of their knowledge-driven organization. These insights draw upon over a dozen large-sample empirical projects and case studies we’ve conducted both before and during the pandemic, across different industries. Our research suggests that managers need to account for two key organizational features to identify their most effective working model: size and growth orientation. Depending on where an organization falls on those two dimensions, we recommend that managers implement one of four stylized working configurations: a stand-alone office or campus, hybrid with flexible space, coworking environment, or fully remote. Each has benefits when it comes to two difficult trade-offs: collaborative creativity versus individual productivity, and the agility to change and expand versus coordination.

Unfortunately, we see too many managers today wavering on making a decision and falling into half-hearted working configurations. There is no cutting the baby in half here: choosing a working orientation requires making these trade-offs. But decisively implementing one of the four working configurations optimizes on what the organization needs at the expense of what it can thrive without.

Mapping Your Needs to Your Office

Based on our research, we have identified two questions about where your organization is going and where it is today to help you determine which of the four models is right for you. First, what is your strategy for future growth? Second, what is the size of the organization you need right now?

What is your strategy for future growth?

First, you need to decide whether creative innovation or efficient execution is more central to your strategic goals. If fostering creativity is paramount to your business, your workplace needs to bring knowledge together by bringing people together, ideally in person. If execution is your primary objective, your business must make sure that individual contributors are as efficient as possible in their own work; being around others may actually distract from the job that needs to be done and impede efficiency.

What is the size of your organization?

Second, it’s important to recognize that small businesses and large enterprises need to rethink office design differently. On the one hand, large enterprises have access to a rich base of expertise and talent right at home, but the challenges can arise from coordinating that activity at scale. On the other hand, a small business can be nimble and agile, but there is a much smaller pool of knowledge to draw on. With the right workplace that plays on your strengths and addresses your weaknesses, however, a smaller business can position itself to grow into a large enterprise and a large enterprise can stay agile like a smaller startup.

To identify which your business falls into, the U.S. Small Business Administration provides a useful classification for identifying whether your organization is large or small; depending on the industry of your business, the range of what is considered a small organization is wide, but for many services or technology businesses, 100 employees is a good rule of thumb to start with. For really knowledge-intensive work — like development of new technology — our research suggests the cutoff can be much lower: even 10 employees or less in some high-tech sectors.

Identifying the Optimal Workplace for Your Organization

After assessing your organization along these two dimensions, your company can be categorized into one of four stylized working configurations: stand-alone office, hybrid with flexible space, coworking environment, or fully remote. We outline the benefits each below, and offer examples of organizations that have implemented each configuration well.

Stand-alone office or campus: For creativity-oriented large enterprises.

Your top resource is your people: your employees are the fountain of knowledge that drive the creativity you need. Thus, your workplace needs to facilitate what scholars refer to as knowledge recombination among your staff; this is the process by which innovation arises when existing knowledge is combined in novel ways. Our research shows that knowledge recombination works best when you bring people physically together. Why? Because knowledge transfer — especially the type that is not written down or easily codified — is easiest face-to-face and aided by other non-verbal cues. Immediate feedback and updating are crucial for well-functioning discussions and brainstorming.

This means that a Zoom meeting isn’t enough, since not all the knowledge translates well through a webcam and virtual meetings don’t often serendipitously take place in the moment. You need to bring people together both so they can brainstorm in a conference room at the whiteboard, and also to create situations where people can run into each other in the hallway on the walk to the bathroom, elevator, kitchen (or at the proverbial water cooler). Larger organizations have more opportunities to benefit from these happenstance opportunities: a five-person company can have 10 possible interactions at the water cooler, but a 10-person company has as many as 45. You can exploit that size for exponential creative opportunities.

At the same time, a large enterprise faces a coordination challenge. Across functions and products, your people need to communicate regularly and easily to make sure they advance in the right direction as we show in our research in partnership with Google. Thus, you need to bring people together not only to drive innovation, but to engage in active coordination between employees where they can iterate towards common goals going forward, or resolve bottlenecks towards existing goals, like if one team is holding up another.

Large enterprises can deliver on both knowledge recombination and active coordination by choosing to centrally gather employees in-person in a stand-alone office or campus. Consider Apple: there are plenty of reasons that Apple is Apple, but the company is clearly thoughtful about how they assemble their people. Just a few months before his death, Steve Jobs went to the Cupertino City Council and laid out his vision for a futuristic circular house of glass that would foster creativity and collaboration. Jobs believed that serendipitous moments that lead to innovation are lost when a building’s design doesn’t encourage collaboration

To shape these social interactions, mangers need to pay attention to the architecture of their office: creating spaces for groups to congregate in or for individuals to incidentally see one another as they pass through increases coordination and knowledge recombination. Inaugurated in 2017, Apple Park now offers ample opportunities for employees to run into each other: at the 100,000-square-foot gym, parks, one of seven cafes, or on route to the bathroom. Hosting many Apple employees in one facility enables relationship building across teams, idea sharing with co-workers of different specialties, and opportunities to collaborate. The division of the building into modular sections, known as pods, facilitates teamwork and social activities. Everyone placed into these pods — from the CEO to summer interns — builds connections and can discover mentorship opportunities.

Hybrid with flexible space: For the execution-oriented large enterprise.

Your top resource is still your people, but they need a different kind of “space” to execute efficiently. You need to give them the flexibility to be where they are most productive. As Leslie Perlow, a renowned Organization Behavior scholar at Harvard Business School points out in her research on “time famine,” constant interruptions at work can have dire consequences for productivity, creating a feeling (and a reality) of having too much to do and not enough time to do it. This is why it’s necessary to structure independent work time for your employees to execute. The best place to do this is not always the office; it may be in the place each employee determines is the best environment for themselves, which could be at home, a coffee shop, or even on a tropical island. So, giving employees the space to be remote at least some of the time may be beneficial. As a couple of extra pluses, you can save on real estate costs and your employees can save on commuting time, which research shows can enhance their productivity.

But we also believe full remote work has serious problems. For one, it cannot facilitate the level of coordination — team meetings to divide up projects, manager check-ins to motivate and track individual progress, etc. — necessary to align their employees towards a corporate goal today. Though virtual meetings can host occasional planned interactions, there is still considerable friction in interactions and just plain physical exhaustion. In fact, during the pandemic, we wrote a case study about Zoom Video Communications, the breakout brand in video conferencing. We can assure you that Zoom is well aware of Zoom fatigue, which the technology available today cannot yet eliminate.

If you want to allow your employees to independently execute remotely, but still need coordination, how do you bridge these needs? The key is to take a new view on how you think about the time your employees spend together in-person. Instead of packing their time with meetings in a conference room, your goal is to drive coordination through culture building.

By giving your people the time and space to socialize in person, your organization builds shared language, norms, values, and ultimately culture. This has long-term value and aids in ensuring consistency in the decentralized decisions your employees make when they are working remotely and independently. It also minimizes the need for constant coordination with coworkers and managers.

Large enterprises can allow for both flexible execution and cultural coordination by being hybrid with flexible space. One organization that has been at the forefront of this model is Github, a leading provider of software development tools. Even before the pandemic, GitHub did not require its employees to come to the office: employees were encouraged to work wherever they wanted in the world, and kept formal meetings to a minimum. Despite this unconventional model, GitHub has always maintained an office in San Francisco, where most of its leadership team resides. The headquarters acts as a gathering space for teams across the company to host in-person team summits, for members of the GitHub community to host events or workshops, and for “GitHubbers” to have cultural hub to engage with. Outside of San Francisco, employees can gather in a network of smaller formal offices and co-working spaces all over the world.

Coworking environment: For the creativity-oriented small startup.

The main challenge of being a small business is a more limited pool of knowledge, carried within the minds of employees, to source from within your organization; these pieces of knowledge, when reshuffled and recombined, are required for innovation. But innovation can come from more than your own employees interacting with each other. Creativity-oriented startups need to make sure their workplace facilitates knowledge spillovers from and to peer firms by looking outside their own four walls. But it doesn’t need to be that far outside: perhaps just down the hall or next door (ideally no further than 20 meters).

By locating your office close by other companies (and even competitors) — in the same city, neighborhood, building, floor, or even in the same room — you can benefit from knowledge spillovers. Further, we find that creativity arises from being near other organizations that are very different, not just in technical skills and target markets, but also in demographic background. This allows people from different companies to socialize face-to-face and build trust, comfortably sharing mutually beneficial knowledge over time so both organizations can thrive.

Again, managers need the right office architecture to promote the social interaction where individuals can exchange information. Although our research suggests that very short distances are especially potent, creating common spaces such as kitchenettes can functionally make people closer, even if they sit in more distant places. Remember: your employees still need private space to execute efficiently, so a completely open office design may be counterproductive.

As your business grows, you will also need to adapt. We suggest designing your workplace with fully reconfigurable scope: you need to be able to move your employees around so that the right people are together to coordinate on an innovation you may not have imagined when you picked your workplace. A reshuffling of office assignments may be useful to stimulate exchange among individuals that would otherwise be less likely to interact. Physical location can serve as a tool to enable unplanned information exchange.

One solution is to locate your business in a coworking environment, popularized by companies like WeWork and Social Impact Hub. We work closely with the Atlanta Tech Village, a coworking space where several startups — which have now grown into notable unicorns — exploited the advantages of coworking. Sales engagement platform SalesLoft moved to the Atlanta Tech Village as one of its first members. Shortly after, marketing platform Terminus also started renting space at the coworking hub. Being physically close to other nascent businesses dealing with similar problems helped Terminus, SalesLoft, and the many others in the space learn from each other; for example, about useful web technologies to support their online operations. It also led to the incorporation of technologies produced by neighbors: SalesLoft continues to use Terminus products today.

Full remote: For the execution-oriented small startup.

Some small startups just need to execute: you know what your people need to do, and so do they. In organizations like this, you must make sure you empower your employees to execute with independent efficiency.

At the same time, you know you will need to grow rapidly. Much like the scalability offered by using cloud computing services as opposed to on-premise servers, you want to make sure you have the fully expandable scale to grow your workforce without being limited by four walls of an office.

If it isn’t obvious already, we are not remote work evangelists: our research demonstrates that there are serious downsides. But there is a time and “place” for it, particularly if you’re an execution-oriented small businesses. Consider Toptal, a company that provides a freelancing platform connecting software developers from around the globe with companies for remote work. Both its internal team and its network of contract developers are remote, now spanning over 93 different countries. The company matches developers to one or more companies at the same time where they take on projects with objectives that can be clearly specified and evaluated by the client. Having clear objectives allows works to be completed individually with less back and forth coordination.

Note that there may be limits to the fully remote model. Another organization, online education provider Treehouse, began their journey as a completely remote company. Initially, this was the appropriate model for them. But once they reached around 40 employees, Treehouse managers recognized that with growth, coordination became more difficult. In response, and in order to maintain employee independence as far as possible, they decided to open offices in Orlando and Portland and shift to the hybrid with flexible space model described above. Today, teachers and other roles requiring coordination can collaborate from these offices, while designers and other roles who can execute independently continue to have the option to work remotely.

. . .

The opportunity to reimagine your workplace doesn’t come along often. Today, too many managers are letting this opportunity slip by, letting their organizations revert back to where they were before the pandemic. Even worse, some are floundering in an ambiguous workplace mixing the past and the future while suffering from all the tradeoffs between workplace configurations. It is time to design your organization for the future based on your size and goals for growth.

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Managing people

How the Best Teams Keep Good Ideas Alive

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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.

Amplifying

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.

Developing

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.

Legitimizing

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.

Exemplifying

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.

Issue-raising

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.

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Leadership

3 Strategies for Managing an Understaffed Team

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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.

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Running a Business

Cirque du Soleil’s Daniel Lamarre on How to Put Creativity at the Center of Your Strategy

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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.

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