1: The year was 1984.
“Guy Laliberté, a former accordion player, acrobat and fire-eater in Montreal, looked at the existing circus industry and saw a losing proposition,” writes Stephen Denning in The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling.
Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey dominated the struggling circus industry, whose shows primarily attracted children. Expenses were high due to the cost of transporting and caring for the many animals. Animal rights groups were also creating negative PR around the treatment of animals. “Star performers” were highly paid.
It was not an attractive business to enter.
Guy had a different idea, however. His business model “created a market space where there was no competition,” writes Stephen. Cirque du Soleil “eliminated animals and deemphasized individual stars. [Guy] combined extreme athletic skill with sophisticated dance and music [to] appeal to upscale audiences of all ages around the world.”
Almost forty years later, Cirque du Soleil shows have been seen by more than 40 million people in ninety cities.
2: The story of Guy Laliberté and Cirque du Soleil is a powerful example of what Stephen calls a “springboard story,” a narrative designed to communicate a complex new idea and inspire action to implement it.
The power of the Cirque du Soleil story highlights a critical element of a springboard story: it must make clear what would have happened without the change idea. “It compares the conventional strategy of competing with the existing dominant players in a shrinking industry (a ‘red ocean’ of sharks) with the successful ‘blue ocean’ strategy of creating a new market where there is practically no competition.
“Why swim in the red ocean with all those sharks when you an have the blue ocean all to yourself? It is like night and day,” Stephen writes.
Which is precisely what the authors of the business bestseller Blue Ocean Strategy did. “The story helped sell more than 4 million copies of their book and communicate their strategic concept to a vast audience,” notes Stephen. “Not only was the Cirque du Soleil a huge business success, but also the story about the Cirque du Soleil was a huge success for [the authors] in terms of communicating their complex idea of a blue ocean strategy.”
3: The lesson for us is: When telling a springboard story, we must spell out the alternative. Doing so makes it clear that the new approach differs from the status quo.
“Now you might think that it would be obvious to your audience what would have happened without the change idea in the absence of your mentioning it. But strange to say, that’s often not the case,” Stephen observes. “They may be thinking: So what? What’s unusual about that? This sort of thing happens all the time. [We] need to remind them of what would have happened without the story.”
Reflection: What challenge am I currently facing? What “springboard story” can I tell to motivate my team or audience? What is the alternative to not taking action?
Action: Tell my story and clarify what would be different without the proposed change.