Bill Taylor: Can we steal the next disruptive health innovation from Cirque du Soleil?

“R&D is not always research and development. Sometimes it’s rip off and duplicate,” Bill Taylor, cofounder and founding editor of Fast Company magazine, said during his keynote address at the Boston Children’s Hospital Global Pediatric Innovation Summit + Awards 2014.

In his address, titled “Tough Problems, New Remedies: A Practically Radical Prescription for Health Care,” Taylor encouraged innovators to look broadly across other fields and determine the health care version of the most successful players in those fields.

Cirque du Soleil and innovation

To illustrate his point, Taylor reflected on Cirque du Soleil’s business model. The global entertainment icon rethought every element of the circus field. And the results are impressive. In 2014, its revenue exceeded $1 billion and it sold 10 million tickets in 25 countries. It did more business than every Broadway show put together.

Reimagining the circus isn’t cheap. Cirque du Soleil cut 60 percent of the costs its competition faces when it made two strategic decisions:

  • No animals. Feeding and caring for animals represents 40 percent of circus costs.
  • No stars. By highlighting the circus company as a whole, rather than a handful of high-dollar stars, Cirque cut another 20 percent in costs.

The company reinvested the funds and focused on clowns, acrobats and staging. “They have created something that is new, exciting and compelling,” Taylor said. “They are only ones who do what they do.”

As Taylor sees it, Cirque models three key elements of the organization of the future:

  • In a world of exceptional abundance (think hypercompetition), it offers an experience that is hard to come by.
  • It created something unprecedented in the field by embracing a big idea.
  • It made its experiences intensely human.

Taylor recommends that all innovators ask themselves a series of tough questions, including:

  • What are the ideas that define how we do business?
  • What are health care’s live animals? Its acrobats?
  • How can the organization offer a one-of-a-kind experience in a world of copycat rivals?