A Critical Review of Contributing Theories in Cirque du Soleil's Innovation Process


The discourse of innovation is dominated by its implementation in technological landscape which divides the history of innovation into several phases of long waves. Until nowadays, there are 5 types of long waves with their very own characteristics. Eventually, one cycle of the long wave will change to another cycle in a period of 50 years (Schumpeter, 1936; Dosi, 1982; Tylecote, 1992). While this is true, there is less discourse related to non-technological innovation, hence this essay will discuss innovation in terms of creative industries. The purpose is to strengthen understandings about innovation as a versatile concept that covers a wide range of subjects.

This essay will review and analyse how theories of creativity and innovation are applied in the performing arts industry as one of the sectors of creative industries (DCMS, 2001) with a focus on Cirque du Soleil (CDS) as a real-life organisational example. The essay’s structure is based on Smith’s (2006) three stages of innovation theory, which consists of: (1) invention; (2) commercialisation; (3) diffusion and completed with a review of CDS’s diurnal innovation process, corporate culture, and leadership practice.

'Totem' Show by Cirque du Soleil
(Source: www.magchild.com/2015/activities/cirque-du-soleil-totem)

Innovation is ‘an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or another unit of adoption’ (Rogers, 1995, p.11). From the previous statement, it can be inferred that novelty is the most important factor for the invention stage. However, there are several ways to generate novelty. According to Henderson and Clark (1990), there are four types of innovation: (1) incremental innovation; (2) modular innovation; (3) architectural innovation; and (4) radical innovation. The distinctive features of these types are the usage of core concepts (reinforced or overturned) and systems (unchanged or changed) to build something new.

In relation to this theory, CDS can be classified as an architectural innovation. Architectural innovation is defined as ‘the reconfiguration of an established system to link together existing components in a new way’ (Henderson & Clark, 1990, p.10). In architectural innovation, the core concept is reinforced while the system is changed to obtain some degrees of novelty. It is embodied in CDS because it aims to offer a one-of-a-kind alternative to enjoy the old-fashioned concept of the circus for a new market target, specifically for adult and professionals. The invention stage of CDS begun with this notion in mind.

Historically, CDS was first initiated by Guy Laliberte in Quebec, Canada circa 1984. As a street performer himself, he pursued his own dream to set up a more modern circus that will be appealing to wider audiences. He pitched the concept and acquired CDS’s first funding from a governmental body, the Canadian Arts Council. In line with CDS manifesto of ‘we reinvent the circus’ (Cirque du Soleil, n.d.), Laliberte combined several already existing components such as human acrobatic, musical score, and theatre to frame a whole new circus experience. From that on, CDS has transformed the nearly sinking trend of traditional circus industry into a sense-indulging performance that is more likely to be accepted by contemporary audiences.

The innovation of CDS is started by an individual but throughout the years it adopts an employee-based innovation source. Nowadays, it is claimed as the biggest theatrical performance company with more than 5000 international workers and 30 show productions. It succeeded to beat the other previously established circus companies, namely P.T. Barnum and The Ringling Brothers (Grant and Jordan, 2015).

In order to make innovation works for CDS, Laliberte’s idea has to be commercialised. To do so, it utilises an innovation model theory. Rothwell (1994) coined five different innovation models: (1) technology push; (2) demand pull; (3) coupling; (4) integrated; and (5) network. In this case, CDS adopted the demand-pull model to prepare its launch to the public.

Demand pull is a market-centred model which prioritises consumers’ needs and expectations. Because of that, the embodiment of the product or service that will be offered depends on prior consumer and market research. The opposite for this model is technology push which puts technology first and then finds a strategy for the product or service to be accepted by the public.

Another contributing theory is blue ocean strategy by Kim and Mauborgne (2005). Blue ocean strategy believes that it is better to be different by cultivating new market or propose distinctive value rather than defeating existing competitors as a follower. In other words, a good business must find a gap between existing product, consumer preference, and future emerging trend which is not created yet. It has to break the boundaries and create a breakthrough as a competitive advantage. The formulation of blue ocean strategy starts with evaluating other competitors’ value proposition to find the gap.

Kim and Mauborgne chose CDS as one of the notable examples for their theory. In practice, CDS eliminate the use of animal and reduce the outsourced star performers which both require high cost and mostly offered by their competitors. It exchanges those eliminations and diverts their source to fortify their performers’ ability (human capital) and build enchanting story line while maintains the hallmark of the circus, like the signature red and white tent. Therefore, the artistic-focused show will be more appealing to targeted audiences.

Cirque du Soleil's Blue Ocean Strategy
(Source: www.herald.cauon.net adapted from Blue Ocean Strategy)

In addition, blue ocean strategy is almost similar to first mover strategy. First mover company acts as a pioneer in an unestablished market with the ability to generate revenue and profit because not all pioneer will be accepted by the market (Liebermen and Montgomery, 1988). The main advantage of these three theories is they can begin to build customer base ahead from their followers. At the time of the product launching, there are no other similar products thus the company will predominate the entire market share.

On the contrary, the risk and uncertainty of cultivating uncontested market are high. To such degree, not all companies which implemented these strategies are succeeding. That is why some companies prefer to choose safer follower strategy such as latecomer or side-entrance strategy (Smith, 2006).

The diffusion of CDS innovation strategy can be explained by the dominant design theory. This theory explains one particular design that emerged as a favoured product rather than other competitors’ product. Consequently, the dominant design product is often copied by competitors as a benchmark. That is why the appearance of similar mass products as a spreading trend can also indicate the emergence of a dominant design. Nevertheless, the product may not offer the best quality of them all, but it is more acceptable to the public because it offers compatible value (Srinivasan et al., 2016).

Before CDS emerged as the dominant design, there is a ‘period of flux’ (Anderson and Tushman, 1990, p.604) in the circus industry. Circus has been developed since the 1760s but none of the companies can be considered as thriving and as widely recognised throughout the world as CDS. Moreover, by the end of the wars in the 1940s, the circus audiences and revenues kept declining until finally, CDS invigorated the circus industry by the end of 1980s (Grant and Jordan, 2015). The grand production and outstanding quality of CDS may be hard to imitate, but the adaptation can be seen when a circus embeds a story line and resembles the concept of theatrical performance. Before CDS, a circus is merely a series of unrelated acts between the performers with no affiliated theme (Rantisi and Leslie, 2014).

Another theory that can complement it is disruptive innovation theory by Christensen (1997). Disruptive innovation revokes current trend and significantly shift it to follow the offered innovation product. The shifting of the trend can lead other established companies to lose their consumer base and revenue. If those companies do not have a strategy to prevent this, they may go bankrupt. For this reason, disruptive innovation is often seen as an alarming threat to industries. Industries have to prepare and innovate persistently in order to sustain their business and avoid their products being replaced by another industry.

In this case, CDS not only disrupts the circus industry, but also other performance arts industry such as theatre and dance recital. Furthermore, it competes as a strong rival with another entertainment industries as an alternative option (Kim and Mauborgne, 2005). For instance, people who are bored with cinema can go to attend CDS show instead. None the less, CDS must improve their technological aspects of the show consistently (e.g. inventing new performing device, using latest advanced technology such as hologram) to assert itself as the leading performance arts industry.

In relation to this matter, CDS established C:LAB, the creative laboratory of CDS in 2014. C:LAB gathers ideas from all of the workers and tries to make the ideas come to reality (Cirque du Soleil, 2016). One of the most prominent projects is Sparked. It combines the ability of performers and the technology of quadcopters to create a poltergeist-like effect in a show (Cirque du Soleil, 2014).

The term diurnal is used to differentiate between the early stage innovation and the day to day innovation process that occurred afterwards. The innovation process in CDS starts with ‘idea development funnel’ (Smith, 2006, p.227). CDS utilises co-creation design from its workers to develop new ideas and get insights as much as they can. After that, the creative director and production director will curate the ideas and further discuss it to construct future show theme and story line. This process may also include historian to assist them in exploring the traditional culture reference in a theme.

Rantisi and Leslie (2014, p.159) undertook this approach as an ‘open-ended nature of creation process’. Another evidence of this process can be seen during the time of the development when the production process is open to additional idea and improvement from all of the workers, not just the head directors. For instance, a dancer can invent his own movements which interpret the show’s theme and perform it in the show as long as it passes the quality control.

Each show in CDS has its own Creative Director who possesses the highest authority in the show. CDS’s shows can run for several years and some of them are performed as tours to different countries. In the period of the long contracts, one circus performer will act as one character only. This obligates the performers to have acting skills and build an emotional connection with the characters in order to make them believable (Dan, 2012).

A show needs at least two years’ preparation stage before the show is ready to be performed. While some divisions develop the script, musical score, and choreography, at the same time the behind the scene divisions work together to design the costumes, properties, and stages. Generally, all of the preparation happens simultaneously with the workload distributed evenly in several divisions (Dan, 2012).

Guy Laliberte has the biggest influence in CDS. He is the founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of CDS. Despite the 90% acquisition of the company in 2015, he continues to manage the company. Laliberte’s leadership style can be classified as situational leadership. Situational leadership’s purpose is to understand working conditions and choose the best method to address that situation rather than being an authoritative figure with passive followers. There are two classifications of situational leadership: (1) task-focused and (2) people-focused (McCleskey, 2014). The second approach fits better with Laliberte’s leadership in CDS.

As a former street busker himself, Laliberte acknowledges the joy and hardships of being performers, thus he leads in a more horizontal approach. He encourages participation from all of the workers to pursue CDS’s goals in a communitarian manner. His position in CDS resembles the role of quality control or supervisor and often stated as the father of CDS (Dan, 2014). He emphasises on ‘decision-making at lower levels’ (Rothwell, 1994, p.16) to cut away ineffective bureaucracy. Moreover, situational leadership style corresponds with CDS’s approach to creativity and innovation which fosters ‘collaborative creative process’ (Simon, 2015, p.59) in its corporate culture.

To overcome public perception who often discredits performers’ occupational well-being, all workers in CDS are bounded by at least two years contract with benefits ranging from health insurance to training facility (Rantisi and Leslie, 2014). In regard to organisational practice, the challenge of working within creative industries is to avoid tension between creative and non-creative workers. For instance, the creative director can propose state-of-the-art ideas but production director must evaluate the feasibility of these ideas in terms of technological capacity, financial cost, or audiences’ preference. However, these two components cannot be separated since creativity in the organisation means a collective process between creative & non-creative who complemented each other (Bilton, 2012). Essentially, CDS celebrates the differences among its workers because it demands transdisciplinary knowledge to build a single show.

Furthermore, CDS did corporate venturing and built two independent-venture unit: (1) C:LAB which has been mentioned earlier and (2) Cirque du Monde (CDM). CDM is a social program from CDS. It invites ‘marginalised and disenfranchised youth’ from across the globe to engage in a workshop to improve their circus-related skills and builds community networking. This program was launched in 1995 and it is accomplished with the aid of prominent non-profit organisations such as Oxfam (Branswell, 2003, p.64).

Another challenge is to avoid what Amabile (1997) mentioned as creativity killer and ‘over-familiarisation’ (Bilton, 2012, p.33). They believe that freedom and creativity are interrelated hence managers must provide the supportive working environment. CDS adopted this theory in its PARADE (Programme de Realisation Artistique de Employes) scheme.

This program liberates CDS’s performers, artists, designers, and other creative workers to experiment with their own creative interest and pursue their personal ideas. CDS even supplies them with the incubating process including mentorship and funding for those ideas. Later, CDS will evaluate the ideas and calculate the idea’s viability to be implemented in the upcoming show. However, this is not a mandatory process because the primary intention of this program is to maintain the creative workers’ productivity (Rantisi and Leslie, 2015). Besides that, Amabile (1990) assured that intrinsic motivation is the best practice to sustain innovation in companies.


The previous image represents the summary of numerous theories that are implemented in Cirque du Soleil’s innovation, leadership, and organisational management. All of the contributing theories are shaping CDS’s prosperity in the creative industries. Moreover, innovation is not only important in the beginning, but it is a continuous process that evolves alongside with the latest organisational and external environment landscape. The management role is to ensure that the organisation does the process well.

From this review, it can be concluded that one single theory is not enough to explain the innovation process in an organisation since innovation covers a wide dimension. Furthermore, the mentioned theories are able to complement each other. All in all, from the earliest idea to focus on the unique value proposition that satisfies neglected market’s needs up to the reconciliation of creative and non-creative workers, Cirque du Soleil succeeded in managing innovation and creativity as a part of its intrinsic corporate culture.

Cirque du Soleil Performers
(Source: www.tellwut.com)

This is an essay for Managing Creativity and Innovation Assignment for Creative Industries and Cultural Policy Course at the University of Glasgow. Please provide proper citation if you use this as reference.

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