Several years ago, “The Office” dominated the national comedy television spotlight with its unique “mockumentary” style filming of a small paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where the naïve and not-so-politically-correct, but often kind-hearted, manager, Michael Scott, leads the team. Many of the episodes focus on the escapades of the office staff.
One of the main observations the viewer gleans from the show is Scott’s inability to lead or manage, as well as his ability to achieve success, despite his vast ineptitude. However, within the show, there are several lessons any construction organization can easily apply to their business strategy.
Dunder Mifflin, the fictitious company in the show, sells garden-variety, white copy paper—hardly a sexy premise for a television series. However, if there’s one thing Scott has a passion for, it’s paper. He and his trusty assistant manager, or “assistant to the regional manager,” Dwight Schrute, know about paper and all of its many nuances. Nothing could be more vanilla (no pun intended).
How passionate are you about the construction industry? How passionate is your team? Why do you do what you do? Does passion resonate throughout your organization, or do you simply go through the motions? Scott makes the most boring product tantalizing to customers and keeps his branch office alive. Does your team do the same for its clientele?
One of the main premises for the show is the firm’s ongoing battle with big-box stores and the competitive landscape causing Dunder Mifflin to have to pivot repeatedly. Scott is often the top salesperson for his firm and the city of Scranton—he can sell paper in spite of having the intellect of a ream of paper.
He knows his clients and, in countless episodes, he and Schrute can be seen interacting with clients and showcasing Dunder Mifflin’s superior customer service. Dunder Mifflin has to further amplify its customer service in the face of enormous price pressures in a hard-bid commodity industry. Sound familiar? Never confuse marketing for old-fashioned, superior customer service.
Scott is a superior salesperson at Dunder Mifflin, even winning an award for top performance. However, he’s hardly a great manager. In similar fashion, how often do firms take a great foreman or project manager and promote them to a position that is not commensurate with their skill sets?
Being a great builder of structures does not always translate into being a great builder of people or business. Many firms make the mistake of promoting for one set of skills and hoping they enable that person to be successful in an entirely different environment.
Often, this is done with little guidance, training or development. Scott had no mentorship, short of his time with Jan Levinson Gould, his love interest and district manager. Keep that in mind.
On an annual basis, Scott engaged in an unsanctioned, yet well-intentioned, awards event known as the “Dundies.” A Dundie award is meant to represent the equivalent of an Oscar or Emmy but has the same impact as receiving a number at the DMV. Nonetheless, Scott’s passion is ever on display.
Winning a Dundie for “whitest sneakers” might not get anyone’s attention in the construction industry. But, on a strategic level, when was the last time someone in your firm was recognized for doing something well or honorably? In a world rife with cynicism, in which we seem to thrive on watching someone stumble, why not showcase the amazing things your organization and its people do?
In one episode, the new regional manager launches Dunder Mifflin Infinity, the organization’s strategy to combat the increased traffic to big-box stores and online retailers. Much to his chagrin, Scott bucks the trend and fights to keep the business status quo, even kidnapping a hapless pizza delivery person in the process.
Scott’s belief is that customer service alone will separate Dunder Mifflin from the online community. While Scott’s zeal for face-to-face interactions with his customers is to be applauded, halting innovation is futile for Dunder Mifflin, just as it would be for your company.
Even so, there is no shortage of industry laggards that serve as holdouts amid the strong tailwind of innovations surging in the industry. Autonomous vehicles, augmented reality, real-time data collection/dissemination, prefabrication, modularization, robotics, 3D printing and blockchain are not only buzzwords in construction, but they also represent the future of the industry.
This is, of course, a tongue-in-cheek examination of a worst-case business management approach. The TV show’s sticking power lies in the audience’s ability to relate to the awkwardness and cringe-worthy performances of Michael Scott—everyone has had a manager or leader who seems to be successful in spite of themselves.
However, “The Office” also provides a moment for leaders to ask themselves questions about their own styles, approaches and strategies. The lessons are pertinent and germane yet stirring. And couldn’t we all use a little stir to serve as motivation?