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The Office Season 4 Episode 12: Ideation

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The opening two minute sequence of this episode is a great example of Ideation, or rather what not to do in Ideation.

Michael rushes into the office asking everyone for their ideas. He establishes the constraint of time, the wet cement is drying and he needs people to think fast about what mark he can leave on the cement. Let’s break this clip down.

Setting Up the Challenge

Michael magnifies the challenge as a grand lifelong dream, as a once in a lifetime opportunity, so that the staff engage in the process and not dismiss it as just another one of their boss’ childlike fancies.

In a short amount of time, many ideas come up. More constraints are identified. The mark has to represent Michael uniquely and be memorable. He also establishes another constraint when he asks, “What do I write?” implying that the solution must be alphabetical.

Idea #1

Kevin, who is shown as slow and dull, is surprisingly the first person to come up with an idea – write your initials. Notice how Kevin speaks, as if he’s revealing something, he’s sure he has come up with a very good idea. There’s a faint smile on his face and probably a twinkle in his eye. But the idea is shot down.

What’s the impact on Kevin? Will he think his ideas are just not good enough? Will he be the first person to speak up in the future?

Idea #2

Phyllis remembers something from her childhood, a good attempt to think of relevant past and try to connect the dots. She tries to think out loud but takes time and Michael loses patience. Phyllis withdraws. It’s likely that Michael’s impatience made her forget what she was thinking about.

What’s the impact on Phyllis? Will she think twice about saying something in the future until she’s absolutely sure of what she wants to say?

Idea #3

Andy comes up with a twist. He tries to better the whole “write something in cement”. Draw something instead of writing. He is a musician, an artist. So perhaps some different neurons fired in his brain. But Michael has no time to waste. Andy tries to explain why his idea is good, that a drawing says so much more than words can, but Michael shoots it down saying “Nooooo give me something good.”

What’s the impact on Andy? Perhaps Andy is not the type who will be discouraged to come up with a new take on something in the future.

Interesting, what qualifies as a “good” idea? Don’t we start off all brainstorming sessions by saying “Now let’s remember. There’s no such thing as a bad idea”?

Obviously, Michael is not an expert at facilitating brainstorming. So what is it that’s going to catch Michael’s fancy?

Idea #4

Kelly thinks of something but goes off tangent. It’s a good thing that the team has Pam to translate it into something relevant for the challenge – leave his hand prints on the cement just like celebrities do.

Now that’s something Michael gets excited about.

It’s no longer about what could be written on the cement, it’s that Michael, by doing what celebrities do, thinks of himself as a celebrity, by extension.

Idea #5

And then Jim throws the dare – a radical idea – a real celebrity would put face in the cement. This is likely Jim’s ploy because he knows he can get Michael to do something outrageous by stroking his ego.

The process has shifted from coming up with ideas to put a mark on cement, to coming up with anything as long as it gets Michael excited and basically gets the boss’ approval.

At this point, Oscar tries to point out that putting one’s face into the cement is not safe. But Michael is already sold on the idea, and the more dangerous it sounds, the more he loves it.

Idea #6

Notice Dwight. He does not offer up any idea but he’s engaged with excitement, has a smile on his face. He is the first one to run after Michael when they go downstairs. Michael is shown with a straw taped to his face, presumably to allow him to breathe, and Dwight applying some vaseline to his face so the cement does not stick to his face. Those execution ideas are equally important and probably came from Dwight. Its debatable whether they were any effective.

Flawed Ideation Process

In two minutes, we get to see a flawed example of the Ideation process play out. Let’s examine.

Setting up the Challenge

Michael does a good job here by elevating the importance of something as trivial as writing on wet cement.

Idea Solicitation

This goes badly because Michael has established a sense of urgency and has no patience. And no one could question this sense of urgency to do something before the cement dried up. Did they have more time than Michael was giving them to come up with more ideas? In the early phase of idea solicitation Michael does try to goad them into thinking but loses patience easily.

Idea Evaluation

Since all this is happening so fast, no one has any context for how ideas are going to be evaluated. Perhaps even Michael does not know. Michael is shooting ideas down based on some internal evaluation in real-time. We also looked at how the people contributing ideas are likely to feel as a result of Michael’s behavior. In the absence of clear criteria, the process degenerates to figuring out what pleases the boss.

Idea Selection

The wackiest idea gets selected without consideration of any pros/cons, feasibility or risk, because Jim has purely played to Michael’s ego and Michael is sold, Oscar’s caution notwithstanding.

Let’s look at implementation & impact.

Idea Implementation

The team earns some points here because they ultimately succeed in achieving the objective of Michael leaving a mark on the cement. They account for the risks, although they all need to lend a hand to pull him out.

Idea Impact

Post implementation, what is the impact of the idea? It’s not just about that one day. It’s about achieving a lifelong dream. Michael talks about leaving a legacy to tell his kids and grandkids about.

Yes Michael is delusional, but that’s the whole point of The Office!

Anyway, what do you think?


Written by Rahul Abhyankar

Aug 30, 2018 at 5:30 pm

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