Lessons learned from the circus: building community for better teamwork (part 2 of 3)

Everyone involved in a hobby or sport is a part of that activity’s community. Those communities are sometimes known for certain characteristics—such as the dedication of runners or the intensity of CrossFit athletes. Circus is no different.

This post shares what you can learn from the circus community and how that community leads to better performance.

I’ve trained at several rigs in the United States and spoken with flyers from around the world who all attest to some common traits about circus communities:

  1. We fiercely support one another’s successes. I’ve never been in an environment that is as genuinely positive as circus is.
  2. We innovate together. We enjoy trying new tricks and testing out new techniques. There’s an element of playfulness that translates to innovations in our performances.
  3. We see ourselves as part of a team; collaboration is an essential component of our success. For most performances, we literally could not perform without someone else’s support. We rely on our fellow performers to accomplish our tricks, choreographers to showcase our talent, and rigging experts to keep us safe. Nobody is a one-man show.

The result is that we all feel powerful and comfortable excelling. We’re not worried about jealousy or making a mistake while being creative. We try more and do more.

When you reflect on prior positions you’ve held, you can probably recall working on teams that did not support one another; teams where everyone was looking out for their own self-interest and covering their backs. On the other hand, you may also recall being a part of teams with a great sense of community that helped you cope with challenges and excel. I’ve experienced both professionally, and the teams with a sense of community were not only more pleasant to work with, I felt empowered to grow my professional skills and comfortable trying out new techniques.

The Harvard Business Review also recognizes the value of collaboration. In “Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams,” Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson studied 15 multinational corporations to determine the top eight characteristics of successfully collaborative groups. Below are the three characteristics most relevant to our discussion:

  1. First, in most successful collaborative teams, 20% to 40% of team members already knew each other. When part of the team shared a history, team formation sped up and the group achieved results faster.
  2. Second, they found that clear roles were more important for collaboration than a clear plan. People perform the best when they know how they should function with the group and what their area of responsibility is. When people understand their roles and what they are responsible for, they willingly participate in a plan or create one to fulfill their role.
  3. Third, leaders of the most successful groups were task oriented and relationship oriented. There’s long been debate about which type of leader is more effective, but when it comes to collaboration, they need to build relationships and keep everyone accountable to the tasks required to complete the project.

Based on the Harvard Business Review’s research and my experiences with circus, I have four recommendations for building better proposal communities:

  1. Build proposal-responsible teams that combine new and familiar people. Even though you’ll constantly be working in new groups because of different teaming arrangements and availability of internal resources, you can increase your team’s effectiveness by making sure at least 20% of team has worked together before. They’ll feel more comfortable asking one another for help, and they’ll demonstrate successful norms you established on the last proposal they worked together.
  2. Don’t just administer tasks; build relationships on the team and innovate together. If you can’t build rapport around small talk or common interests, take time to talk with team members individually about their thoughts on the proposals, their stresses in the office, and try to innovate some new process improvements. Listening to their perspectives will go a long way in relationship building.
  3. Clearly define roles and responsibilities on your team. A good time to do this is at kickoff. Don’t just introduce people based on their roles in this project, explain what each of those roles is responsible for. This sets a common standard and allows you to keep them accountable to those standards.
  4. Keep your team engaged after submission. Your project may be “completed,” but if you want to foster a sense of community around proposals, then you should keep the team updated on the award outcome and any valuable information from the source selection. This should be a part of every company’s standard operation procedure (SOP) for lessons learned, but it is often overlooked. If you don’t keep your team updated on the outcomes of their hard work, they won’t be motivated to help on the next project.

What steps will you take to improve community at your office? Check back for part three in the series: how to consistently succeed.


Julia Quigley has worked on a variety of Federal Health IT task orders and large federal proposals. With a Master’s in Rhetoric and Composition, she has created proposal writing strategies and conducted training to help technical subject matter experts (SMEs) understand how to respond clearly and compellingly to solicitation requirements. Prior to joining Lohfeld Consulting Group, Julia managed proposals for small and mid-sized federal contractors and taught introductory writing and persuasive writing classes at Texas State University. She applies the lessons she taught as well as lessons learned to all her writing and training projects.

author avatar
Lohfeld Consulting