On The Dilbert Principle
by Scott Adams

As a WSJ reviewer said, this is the best management book ever. Seems like a joke, but it's true. The book consists of 25 chapters that use the author's Dilbert comics to make fun of business practices, followed by one short and serious chapter about avoiding such mistakes.

What's Wrong With Business?

The key to the book's value is its 25 chapters that in effect explain what not to do. Dilbert may be a comic strip, but taken as a whole it's also an encyclopedic compendium of common business mistakes.

An analysis of these mistakes reveals that almost all stem from a single source: companies and workers have different goals. Companies want to make money by making products. Workers want stable jobs, higher salaries, meaningful work, and respect. In the typical company, sloppy leadership exacerbates this division to such a degree that workers concentrate on turf building, ladder climbing, and fighting the system to the neglect of making products.

Why do executives lead thus? Because of a mistaken belief in their own expertise. A company in a market is a complex organism in an even more complex ecosystem in which changes have unpredictable repercussions. Nobody can guess right except a rare few savants and some lucky lottery winners.

Nevertheless, company executives are expected to have the answers, so they apply techniques that supposedly work for the savants. This is like the average chess player, who in trying to foresee ten moves ahead, as the masters do, misses the fact that his queen will be lost on the next turn. Executives get so caught up in the latest management fad for fine-tuning an organization, that they lose track of more fundamental goals.

His Answer

Adam's suggestion is that companies concentrate on two main goals: making products, and keeping employees effective so that they can continue to make products. Everything one level removed from these is a dangerous distraction. If company leaders keep things simple and stick to these goals, then at least the company won't make beginner's blunders.

Adams gives specific management suggestionsL centered around the primary goals. Help workers to avoid overwork so they'll be happier; fire troublemakers, however capable, who drag the company away from the primary goals; help workers to learn on the job, so they'll be happier; and improve efficiency, so that workers can get more done more quickly so they can leave earlier and be happier. One gets the feeling that Adams wasn't a very happy worker.

This is great advice, but I've seen it presented to company leaders before, and the inevitable response is, "sure, sure, we keep that in mind, but we're smart, we can look ten moves ahead too." After all, they're making the big bucks, they know way more than anyone else at the company, they know what they're doing. Stop joggling my elbow, kid. The typical executive will smile condescendingly, thinking to him/herself that if a company used this naive approach of just making products, without getting requirements from marketing or doing sales projections, it'd be outpositioned or overrun in the market, or some such military analogy; only keen generalship and clever strategizing can prevail.

Of course, that's silly. Almost all really successful products are developed through skunkworks or otherwise without management attention, and only when they are finished does marketing move to quickly exploit the opportunity. The logic is simple: if a company produces products, it can sell them; if it doesn't, it can't. Any product is better than any nonproduct.

It's a simple matter of mathematics. Which of two approaches will work best: make productivity-impairing changes (kill or redirect projects, do more planning now and put off making something until later) based on poor predictions; or make decisions that improve productivity independent of the predictions? In the astigmatic world of corporate foresight, the latter is a better bet. If a productive project doesn't fit the company strategy, change the strategy, not the project.

Substantive changes:
    July 5, 1996: created.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Colwell, All Rights Reserved
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