First of all, I am a huge Dilbert fan, although I have never read the comics at work, especially not during that dozy hour right after lunch.
Maybe you have heard of the Peter principle. People get promoted for being competent at their current position, so it is certain that everybody ends in a job they can no longer fill competently. The Dilbert principle is similar, but postulates an earlier reason for executive incompetence: incompetent people are rapidly transferred to positions where normal people do not have to see them every day and where they cannot touch anything dangerous – to management.
Most management books are written by and for managers. There are good reasons for this, for example few non-managers have the required of free time and hubris to write a management book. But this also creates a bias which may be one reason why ridiculous company policies still thrive. The Dilbert Principle offers a different perspective, looking at management actions through the eyes of the office workers affected by them.
Adams brings up diverse topics that determine (and sometimes plague) the daily grind in the cubicles, from consultants to employee motivation programmes. Each chapter gives an brief introduction to the topic at hand, not sparing the sarcasm, followed by a selection of comics mocking the described management strategies. Unfortunately, some comics are shown more than once for different topics. The final part for each chapter is a collection of emails written to Adams by office workers suffering from silly management that may as well be scripts for the Dilbert comic. Sometimes life imitates art.
Some highlights from the emails: an employee qualified for an office, but not for office furniture, so they got a full cubicle installed within their office. Some guys actually got the written objectives to “utilize issue clarification processes” or to “determine the year-end stage assessment”. A management team that, after hours of meetings, successfully created a timeline to identify a person to prepare a schedule for finding a name for a new product.
The Dilbert Principle was written 1996 and fortunately things have changed a lot since then. Cubicle farms have largely been replaced by other office concepts (each with their own problems). Skilled workers shortage led to higher appreciation of employees and more flat hierarchies. Rigid, bureaucratic project management has been replaced by agile methods and international competition forced companies to reduce at least the most ridiculous overhead expenses. So, although the jokes still work, a portion of The Dilbert Principle is lost to modern readers.
But that does not mean that all absurdity is gone. A recent real-life example: Some consultants told a manager that his staff is afraid to speak to him, especially when they have bad news. The manager reacted by calling a staff meeting and asking the gathered employees if anybody has any problems speaking to him. Shockingly, nobody said yes, so the manager was convinced to have proven the consultants wrong. I would mock this, but it has been done in plenty of Dilbert comics already.
So, if you are a downtrodden office worker, maybe you find comfort in the the records of others that have even worse management. If you are a leader, maybe this book inspires you to take the extra time and question the policies you set. People will behave the way you treat them.
I greatly enjoyed it.
- Management is clueless.
- This is both tragic and comical.
- Comic strips!
Scott Adams runs a massively popular webcomic (and a slightly controversial blog) at Dilbert.com. He also got cubicle experience himself.
HarperBusiness; Reprint edition (April 24, 1997)