“Yes, and”, Cirque du Soleil and innovative design

On a recent holiday we got to go to a Cirque du Soleil show. The show was “O” and you should seriously consider checking it out if you ever get the chance. Absolutely amazing! Aside from being thoroughly entertaining, for me the show reinforced some recent experiences around innovation and creative leadership that I’d picked up from companies like Empathy Design and IDEO.

I’m not talking about design frameworks or methods of research – although those will pay you back too! I’m talking about the power of two simple words. They’re easy words to say in your head, but not always as easy in practice. If you’re interested in hearing more, feel free to read on. Or pop over to one of the websites mentioned above if you want to learn from the experts!

Cirque du Soleil “O”

If you’ve ever seen a show like Cirque, then you’ll know the general approach: a storyline weaved through a show of live music and acrobatics. It encapsulates a feeling of “wow!”, is immersive and generally involves the audience to an extent. This one was no exception but did have one difference – it was above a pool of water. So instead of landing on a stage, trampoline or safety net, the performers could plunge into the water:

Cirque du Soleil O 1

It was easy to imagine a design thinking style process where the performers had a conversation that went something like this:

Performer 1: “We could leap into the air and spread our limbs out for great effect”

Creative director, doesn’t say “but we always do that” instead they say Yes, and could we build up some momentum on a giant swing, so that we can fly higher and longer than we’ve done before?”

Performer 2 contributes: Yes, and instead of having to land on a stage we could plunge into a pool of water so that we can hold our pose for longer!”

Few people would argue with the commercial success of Cirque du Soleil and that this success is based on an ability to immerse and delight their customers. I couldn’t help but think that the end result of delighted customers stemmed in part from “yes, and” style thinking.

Of course “what ifs” and “buts” have to be addressed too. So whilst we were seeing this:

Cirque du Soleil O 2

What was actually happening was like this:

Cirque du Soleil O 3

(this is really what was happening … they even show you the scuba divers at one point in the show)

Creative leadership and innovation

What I didn’t know when I was thinking the above on our way out of the theatre, was that Cirque du Soleil have indeed been used as a poster child for innovation, design thinking and creative leadership.

People that know me well, will know that I’m more of a “what if” kind of guy (some pretty strong monitor evaluator preferences in there for those familiar with Belbin!). But the lesson for me is clear, innovation comes from a “yes, and” approach.

Applying “yes, and” in principal

A “yes, and” approach works really well during ideation. When leading a group through idea generation (e.g. in an ideation workshop) you’re after quantity, and you want your participants to defer judgement on quality (“no idea is a bad idea … for now”). A positive approach to take is to encourage the group to build on each others ideas. Ask people to put away any tendency to say “but that won’t work” and instead try starting their thoughts and comments with “yes, and”. Doing this is a great way to facilitate building on ideas.

If you can get the group to the point where they’re eagerly awaiting each others ideas, pausing to consider and then saying “yes, and we could …” then you’re halfway there!