The Dilbert Principle
Date: Wed, 7 Jun 95 23:28:14 PDT
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Subject: The Dilbert Principle
Forwarded-by: Chris Alaimo at CalPost
THE DILBERT PRINCIPLE
by Scott Adams
from the Wall Street Journal, "Manager's Journal" May 22, 1995
I use a lot of "bad boss" themes in my syndicated cartoon strip,
"Dilbert." I'll never run out of material. I get a hundred e-mail message
a day, mostly from people who are complaining about their own clueless
managers _redundant?!. Here are some of my favorite stories, all allegedly
- A vice president insists that the company's new battery-powered product
be equipped with a light that comes on to tell you when the power is off.
- An employee suggests setting priorities so they'll know how to apply
their limited resources. The manager's response: "Why can't we
concentrate our resources across the board?"
- A manager wants to find and fix software bugs more quickly. He offers
an incentive plan: $20 for each bug the Quality Assurance people find
and $20 for each bug the programmers fix. (These are the same
programmers who create the bugs.) Result: An underground economy in
"bugs" sprints up instantly. The plan is rethought after one employee
nets $1,700 the first week.
Stories like these prompted me to do the first annual Dilbert Survey to
find out what management practices were most annoying to employees. The
choices included the usual suspects: Quality, Empowerment, Re-engineering
and the like. But the number-one vote-getter on this highly unscientific
survey was "Idiots Promoted to Management."
This seemed like a subtle change from the old concept where capable
workers were promoted until they reached their level of incompetence ---
the Peter Principle. Now, apparently, the incompetent workers are promoted
directly to management without ever passing through the temporary
When I entered the work force in 1979, the Peter Principle described
management pretty well. Now I think we'd all like to return to those Golden
Years when you had a boss who was once good at something. I get all
nostalgic when I think about it. Back then, we all had hopes of being
promoted beyond our levels of competence. Every worker had a shot at
someday personally navigating the company into the tar pits while reaping
large bonuses and stock options. It was a time when inflation meant
everybody got an annual raise; a time when we freely admitted that the
customer didn't matter. It was a time of joy.
We didn't appreciate it then, but the Peter Principle always provided us
with a boss who understood what we did for a living. Granted, he made
consistently bad decisions --- after all, he had no management skills. But
at least they were the informed decisions of a seasoned veteran from the
Boss: "When I had your job, I could drive a three-inch rod through a
metal casing with one motion. If you're late again, I'll do the same thing
to your head."
Lately, however, the Peter Principle has given way to the Dilbert
Principle. The basic concept of the Dilbert Principle is that the most
ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do
the least damage: management. This has not proved to be the winning
strategy that you might think.
Maybe we should learn something from nature. In the wild, the weakest
moose is hunted down and killed by Dingo dogs, thus ensuring survival of
the fittest. This is a harsh system --- especially for the Dingo dogs that
have to fly all the way from Australia. But nature's process is a good
one; everybody agrees, except perhaps for the Dingo dogs and the moose in
question ... and the flight attendants. But the point is that we'd all be
better off if the least competent managers were being eaten by Dingo dogs
instead of writing mission statements.
It seems as if we've turned nature's rules upside down. We
systematically identify and promote the people who have the least skills.
The usual business rationalization for promoting idiots (the Dilbert
Principle in a nutshell) is something along the lines of "Well, he can't
write code, he can't design a network, and he doesn't have any sales
skills. But he has VERY good hair ..."
If nature started organizing itself like a modern business, you'd see,
for example, a band of mountain gorillas led by an "alpha" squirrel. And
it would be the squirrel nobody wanted to hang around with.
I can see the other squirrels gathered around an old stump saying stuff
like: "If I hear him say 'I like nuts' one more time, I'm going to kill
him." The gorillas, overhearing this conversation, lumber down from the
mist and promote the unpopular squirrel. The remaining squirrels are
assigned to Quality Teams as punishment.
You may be wondering if you fit the description of a Dilbert Principle
manager. Here's a little test:
1. Do you believe that anything you don't understand must be easy to do?
2. Do you feel the need to explain in great detail why "profit" is the
difference between income and expense?
3. Do you think employees should schedule funerals only during holidays?
4. Are the following words a form of communication or gibberish:
"The Business Services Leadership Team will enhance the organization in
order to continue on the journey toward a Market Facing Organization (MFO)
model. To that end, we are consolidating the Object Management for
Business Services into a cross strata team."
5. When people stare at you in disbelief, do you repeat what you just said,
only louder and slower?
Now give yourself one point for each question you answered with the
letter "B." If your score is greater than zero, congratulations --- there
are stock options in your future.
(The language in number 4 is from an actual company memo.)
* * *
Mr. Adams is the creator of Dilbert, which appears in 450 newspapers.
He still works his day job at Pacific Bell.
© 1995 Peter Langston