Lessons learned from the circus: consistently succeeding

Several years ago, a performer at Cirque Du Soleil died during a performance because of a mistake in her rigging. This was newsworthy not just because of the tragedy, but because this was the first time a Cirque Du Soleil performer died during an act, despite the death-defying, acrobatic feats that fill their show. Everyone involved in a circus performance works diligently to have a successful performance, free from mistakes.

While the mistakes we make as proposal professionals may not cost us our lives, there’s certainly a lot on the line. From circus performers, we can learn the importance of communication and adaptability to succeeding consistently.

Communication is critical in collaborative projects like trapeze and other circus performances. Acrobats and aerialists have to communicate about what is working and what’s not in real time in order to succeed. Sometimes people are afraid to express their needs because they think it will come across as a criticism or that they’ll seem “needy,” but circus performers quickly realize that communicating your needs is the only way to improve. Unless you tell your partner that you need more or less lift, for instance, they can’t know how to help you into position.

Circus performers also have to adapt to new environments and new partners. An aerialist on the flying trapeze could perform her best trick with a new catcher and miss the catch because of the new dynamics. The catcher could be shorter than the last catcher she trained with, which means she might need to travel a bit more to reach him, or he might need to adjust the timing of his catch. Failing on the trick with a new partner doesn’t necessarily mean anyone did anything “wrong”—it just means they need to adapt to be successful in this new dynamic.

Research also supports the premise that communication and adaptability are essential for team success. In their book Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage authors Scott Keller and Colin Price write, “Organizational health is about adapting to the present and shaping the future faster and better than the competition.” They emphasize the importance of adapting and changing well together as a team, which is impossible without good communication skills.

Leadership expert Karin Hurt shares seven questions to improve communication. She recommends asking your team the following:

  1. What is working and what’s not working about your communication practices? This creates a baseline for future communication.
  2. Who are our stakeholders and what do they care about?
  3. What additional information do you need from me?
  4. How will we use email?
  5. When will we meet by person, phone, web conference, etc.? People enter groups with their own assumptions about protocol for online communication and meetings, so discussing these expectations and setting a standard prevents unintended chafing.
  6. How will we ensure our meetings are effective?
  7. How will we resolve conflict? Once you have consensus about how to handle conflict, people can address concerns without anxiety about the appropriate course of action. Those involved in the conflict are less likely to be aggravated when they approved of the conflict resolution approach.

Based on the resounding importance of communication and adaptability, I offer three recommendations.

1.     First, discuss communication strategies during proposal kickoff.

Every time you work on a proposal, you’re working with a new collaborative team. Using some of Karin Hurt’s questions during kickoff can help build a sense of community in your team and improve the ability of your team to communicate well. If you can communicate well, there’s less of a chance your team will make a mistake, and you increase your ability to adapt to all the changes that happen during a proposal.

2.     No matter what your role on the proposal is, learn to express what you need for success on the project.

If proposal team members aren’t providing you what you need for success, don’t be afraid to tell them specifically what you need and how it affects the project. The request isn’t inherently a criticism and it doesn’t make you needy; it’s direct communication.

3.     Be flexible as you work with different proposal teams/team members.

Even if you think you have your process down pat, you’ll work with colleagues and customers who have different needs and expectations that you need to adapt to. Remember, adaptability is a part of organizational health that makes teams successful and competitive. Adapting doesn’t mean you were doing something wrong before; it just means you have to change to be successful in this environment.

Beyond these tips, how are you going to embody this circus “lessons learned” with adaptation and communication?


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.

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Lohfeld Consulting