Saturday, October 25, 2008

Keeping It Fresh

Today I found myself in the bleachers of, can you believe, the 5th circus performance in under a month. I have serendipitously enjoyed: one national Swiss circus, one regional Swiss circus, one opening of the World Conservation Congress (which involved four perilous circus performers - I am going to count that), the none-other-than Cirque du Soleil, and a final circus performance of my 7 year old, who takes circus classes after school. That is a lot of circus (circi?) for one person.

Today in the 3-hour perfomance of the regional Swiss circus, I thought to myself, how can these performers distinguish themselves from all the other jugglers, acrobats, and unicyclists? Audiences today, with so much access and exposure, must be the toughest crowds. (Even for those who do not go five times in a just over a fortnight.) How do they keep it fresh and new?

I thought this as I watched the young man on the unicycle. What was so interesting about his performance was what he did NOT do. He did not actually sit on the seat and ride his unicycle around the ring (at least not for more than the first 5 seconds). After that he hopped on it, he threw it up in the air, he rode it sideways without the seat or pedals, and other equally inexplicable things, none of which involved him riding that unicycle. It was a prop, a foil, a bouncing agent, a propulsion unit, something to hold his hat.

Cirque de Soleil was the same - incredibly innovative with what might seem standard circus fare. The juggler was there, with red balls, but he never threw them up in the air. He bounced them off a briefcase, up and down an umbrella, over his head and in and out of his hat. Those juggling balls never touched his hands, but they juggled none-the-less.


Lizzie and I spent 3 hours Friday afternoon working through the design of an upcoming offsite workshop, an important one, involving senior management and a critically important issue. This 2-day workshop would effectively launch a 4-year process. The workshop had exciting things in it, but by the time we got to the afternoon of Day 2 in our design, we were yawning. We still had a few items to cover, but the way they were currently designed was too much of the same good thing. No more groups, no more cards, no more creative carousels, or flipchart template work. We had put in our visualisation, we had light role play to show different perspectives, people had worked alone, in pairs, trios, quads and in plenary. We moved the room set-up around four times. We needed some inspiration, so we stopped.

What would those circus people do with some flipchart paper, markers, meta-plan cards, and balls? Would they have people write their aspirations for the future on flipchart paper, make huge paper airplanes with them and then shoot them out the second floor to see which goals get us the furthest? Would they take those cards and draw items on them that they would put in a time capsule to be opened at the end of the 4-year process that we are planning? Seal them in a box for those amongst us to open at the end to see what life was like in our institution in November 2008? Maybe no agenda item at all, and no materials (some of the most interesting Cirque de Soleil performances were just 2 people and nothing else), maybe a walk outside and an Open Space session to simply deal person to person with any outstanding items.

Inspiration. Who better to get it from than performers who can eternally come up with new things to do with the human body (or briefcases, stools, or trained poodles for that matter.)


Michael Randel said...

Thank you! I've been feeling a similar frustration with my attempts to design a 3-day course recently, and realising by the beginning of Day 3 the learning activities were starting to feel "stale".
Thanks for opening a fresh metaphor and way of thinking about the design process.


Gillian Martin Mehers said...

Hi Michael, Yes, sometimes I get the impression that participants feel "workshopped", and I also think you can see it on a trainer/facilitator's face when they themselves have done something too many times without changing it. Keeping it fresh is as much for us as it is for the participants!