1. Cast teams for creative conflict.
Cirque officials generally make sure there's a mix of nationalities and viewpoints when they draft a creative team. Then they lock creators in a room with the instructions, "Don't come out till you have something great." Easy consensus, says Daniel Lamarre, Cirque's president, is the enemy of groundbreaking ideas.
2. Always shoot for the triple somersault.
Cirque's founder, Guy Laliberte, is famous for asking his people to stretch beyond the great to the jaw-dropping. "It's a commitment to a degree of sophistication and performance that distinguishes Cirque du Soleil productions from their less-demanding peers," says coach Boris Verkhovsky. And it's the reason they continue to dazzle audiences even after two decades.
3. Recruit the near-great.
Elite athletes who just missed the national team generally have the same work ethic, the same tricks, and nearly the same skills as medal winners. The difference: They still have something to prove, and they're rarely prima donnas. They'll get the job done and be better team players than the champions.
4. Push the envelope — at the interview.
Cirque scouts routinely ask candidates to do something unexpected at their audition: Climb a rope . . . then sing a song when you get to the top ("Happy Birthday" is forbidden). It's a good way to find talent that's multidimensional and comfortable improvising, not to mention a great character test. If the candidate freaks at the challenge, he's generally out the door.
5. Don't be greedy.
Cirque limits its show production to one a year. "If we want to have fun creating shows and pushing the boundaries, one show a year is good enough for us. We don't want to jeopardize quality," Lamarre says. Besides, "if there's not a creative challenge, we're not going to do a deal, regardless of the financial impact."
6. Protect creative teams from business pressures.
Lamarre isolates his creative teams from the Cirque du Soleil "machine." "I want them to eat and breathe their show," he says, "and keeping them away from day-to-day operations is the best thing."
A version of this article appeared in the July 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.