The Dilbert Principle, Scott Adams

If there’s a mascot for Internet users, it’s the nerdy engineer Dilbert from Scott Adams’ comic strip of the same name. No other character in the mass media combines the feelings of technological superiority and wage-slave hopelessness present in the lives of most computer users. But the play of computer users versus management is only part of Adams’ comic ouevre; his hilarious take on everyday blue-collar workers touches not only on computer use in companies, but the combined forces of Total Quality Management, endless meetings, doughnuts, cubicles, business plans, and all the other aspects of working in a modern office. Although most of Adams’ strips play on the plight of the nameless cubicle worker against an uncaring and oblivious management, he also covers the flip side of work where managers are unable to motivate employees beyond using the office LAN for Doom and the fine art of making sleep look like work. Given all of this familiarity with business, and the increasing popularity of business books, it makes sense that Adams’ most recent book, The Dilbert Principle isn’t a collection of Dilbert strips but a incisive look at the frailty and foibles of self-help management books under the guise of being one itself.

Business books were overdue to move from the bestseller list to the parody shelf. What was once simply just a few “feel-good”self-help psychology books for managers like Stephen R.Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Kenneth Blanchard’s The One Minute Manager is now a plague, including books like The Management Secrets of Attila the Hun and The Star Trek Guide to Management. What these books spend so many words doing that Adams deconstructs so brilliantly is to take what is common sense to anybody else and grafting the buzz words of business schools and management training on it. Take, for example, this wonderful bit of normal business communication that might have come straight from Management 101:

“Perform world-class product development, financial analysis, and feet services using empowered team dynamics in a Total Quality paradigm until we become the industry leader.”

Take out the double-speak, and what you have is a mission statement that says:

“Do the best work to provide the best product with the best people until we become the best in our field.”

Unfortunately, the first statement probably took ten people who get paid in the high five figures (if not more) at least three days at an exclusive resort in Florida to write. Even more than mission statements such as this, business double-speak of the nineties has centered around terms such as “downsizing” and “re-engineering”. By putting a different spin on the timeless tradition of firing and re-organization, today’s companies act more like politicians than producers.

Ninety-five percent of Adams book is examples such as this, cartoons illustrating the examples, and email from Dilbert readers telling how their companies have fallen into the Dilbert Zone. All of this is great reading, although sometimes disconcerting when you see your own company being portrayed. The last five percent of The Dilbert Principle is Scott Adams’ own philosophy for managers. He says, in the introduction to unveiling his company model OA5 (standing for “Out at Five O’Clock”), that:

“In this chapter you will find a variety of untested suggestions from an author who has never successfully managed anything but his cats. (And now that I think of it, I haven’t seen the grey one for two days.) … I doubt that anything you read here will improve your life, but I’m fairly confident that it won’t hurt you either, and that’s better than a lot of things you’re doing now.”

Although humble, his suggestions have much merit because they return the business of work to common sense. When a company remembers, as Adams suggests, that it has three main reasons for being (its customers, its employees, and its stockholders), and treats all three fairly, then the rest will fall into place. If all the management consultants and business book authors condensed their theories into brief summaries such as this, it would be tough to charge $100 an hour and $25 per book for it. Which means that there will always be consultants and treatises for the clueless, and an endless supply of material for Adams’ cartoon.

[Finished 14 June 1996]

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