Monday, April 24, 2006

Tech: The Dilbert Principle: how to engineer a philosophy backwards

The Dilbert Principle is a book written by Dilbert’s creator Scott Adams. I suspect the reasoning behind the book went something like this. The Dilbert cartoons seem to be saying something about corporate life. How about wrapping that something up in a book, illustrating with examples from the cartoons? The thought could have come from his publisher, himself, or at a party when there was too much alcohol around. Either way.

So he invented a philosophy to encompass a satire of those management how-to fad books. And that philosophy? “No matter how smart you are, you spend much of your day being an idiot”.

Well, he’s a cartoonist, what do you expect?

Still, the book works well on several levels. Best as just a funny book with very funny cartoons. Next, as a satire. Finally, as a serious how-to (or how-not-to) book, I’m sure some people will be assigned it in a misguided effort to teach its principles. It’s not that comprehensive/coherent on that score, but it certainly helps burst a few balloons on management behaviour, and holding it up as a mirror can surely promote some humility amongst those who could do with it.

The milieu is certainly high-tech, but the specifics vacillate with remarkable fluidity, so sometimes Dilbert and colleagues seem to be hardware engineers, sometimes software engineers. Adams actively canvasses for examples of corporate stupidity, which helps explain the incessant parade of stupidity, which nonetheless retains that precarious whiff of verity.

- “We’ve been asked to reduce our budget. I’m going to offer to cut your project because it’s the most critical. The finance guys won’t dare…”
- “Problem: our product development process requires buy-in from managers who’d all be happier if we died. My solution is to created executive oversight groups who don’t understand the issues and don’t have time to meet.”
- “I’m happy to report that the “excellence in teaming” read-out is nearly ready. It’s taken forty people from a dozen departments to complete the study. We finally got buy-in.”

Absurd? Sometimes it doesn’t need to exaggerate to make the point. I suggest a regular dose for executive managers; they have the most to learn from this. If they’re smart enough to pick out the lessons.

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