What happened is one of the cast members - Will Lee - who played a character called Mr. Hooper died. This had never happened before, so the producers of the show had to come up with a way to explain the concept of death to their audience of 3-4 year old kids.
The first thing they did was consult with experts; they talked to pediatric psychologists and others who might know what to do, and came back with a set of ground rules, albeit no specific answers. The ground rules were simple: they had to face the issue – they could neither avoid it nor ignore it; they couldn’t deal with the religious aspects of death - the kids were too young to understand; they couldn’t do a eulogy – that’s an adult thing; they couldn't say he went to the hospital because a lot of folks go to the hospital, but don’t die from the experience.
With those notions in mind, they turned to the cast members and said:
"Here are the boundaries - the things you need to keep in mind. Now, we'd like you to get your heads together and figure out how to break the news to the kids."The cast met, and created a short segment that got the job done. The scene opens with Big Bird walking onto the set with a big sheath of papers in his hand. He approaches the other cast members who are sitting around a table and says:
"Hey, everybody! I’ve drawn some pictures of you. I want you to see them."Then, Big Bird starts passing out the pictures, and the cast members start talking among themselves about how wonderful the pictures are. Finally, we see that Big Bird has one picture left. He holds it up and says:
"Where is Mr. Hooper? I want to give him his picture."One of the cast members casually approaches Big Bird and says:
"Oh, don’t you remember Big Bird, Mr. Hooper died."Big Bird thinks for a second or two and then says:
"Geez! That’s right. I’ll have to give it to him when he comes back."Another cast member stands, looks directly at Big Bird, and says:
"No, Big Bird. Don’t you remember? When people die, they don’t come back."Curtain.
The episode was aired on November 24, 1983 - Thanksgiving Day - and was quickly selected by the Daytime Emmys as one of the 10 most influential moments in daytime television history.
Bob Waterman, the McKinsey partner who authored In Search of Excellence with colleague Tom Peters, told this story at one of our first Masters Forum sessions. He used it to illustrate a management approach he was recommending called Directed Autonomy. His notion was simple. Instead of telling your employees what to do and how to do it, you should instead:
"Establish rules, boundaries, guidelines to create a solution space, and then give them the freedom to work within that space to solve a problem or a come up with a way to take advantage of an opportunity."Conversation:
- Are you more apt to tell others what to do and how to do it, or to create a solution space that gives them freedom to be creative?
- If you are in the habit of creating solution spaces, tell a story about a time it worked. Tell another about a time it didn't work. What, if anything, made the difference?
- If you habitually tell others what to do and how to do it, how do you think they are able to take pride in their accomplishments? How do think they feel about working for you? How would you like to work for you?
"The real creative ideas originate hither and yon in the individual members of the staff and no one can tell in advance what they will be or where they will crop up." - Frank B. Jewett, organizer and first head of Bell Labs
"When Alexander the Great visited Diogenes and asked whether he could do anything for the famed teacher, Diogenes replied: 'Only stand out of my light.' Perhaps some day we shall know how to heighten creativity. Until then, one of the best things we can do for creative men and women is to stand out of their light." - John W. Gardner