25 Years of Dilbert

If you’ve worked in an office, you probably know Dilbert like you know your significant other. If, by the vagaries of chance, you do not… what are you waiting for?

On April 16, 1989, Scott Adams published the first Dilbert cartoon. Four days ago, the 25th anniversary of Adams’ amazing strip passed, with nary a hiatus or a break. Each episode resonates with someone in the business world, and amazingly, the well shows no sign of running dry, as the corporate world continues to be full of pointy-haired bosses, egomaniacal CEO’s, and maddening co-workers.

2419.strip.zoom

Don’t you just want to slap this guy? Haven’t we all know someone equally self-absorbed, clueless and abusive during our careers? How people like this ever get hired, and then manage to keep their jobs, is a total mystery to me – except the model has not gotten stale at all:

Boss

Adam Scott as Ted Hendricks in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

Adams 25-year journey is full of wonders: good advice for dealing with abusive bosses and clueless co-workers, but also, if you read between the lines, a scathing commentary about the state of affairs in corporate America as well as pointers for those who want to be good bosses and good employees.  Adams follows up and expands on his philosophies over at the Dilbert Blog.

One of the most succinct analyses of what’s wrong with business today, and what could be right, is found in Adams’ book The Dilbert Principle; he calles it OA5 (Out at Five). I quote it here without permission and hope I don’t get sued by one of his army of lawyers:

New Company model: OA5

The key to good management is knowing what’s fundamental to success and what’s not.

Companies with effective employees and good products usually do well.

That might seem like a blinding flash of the obvious, but look around your company and see how many activities are at least one level removed from something that improves either the effectiveness of the people or the quality of the product. When I refer to product, I mean the entire product experience from the customer’s perspective including the delivery, image and channel.

Any activity that is one level removed from your people or your product will ultimately fail or have little benefit. It won’t seem like that when you’re doing it, but it is a consistent pattern.

It’s hard to define what I mean by being “one level removed” but you know it when you see it. Examples help:

  • If you are writing code for a new software release, that’s fundamental, because you’re improving the product. But if you’re creating a policy about writing then you’re one level removed.
  • If you’re testing a better way to assemble a product, that’s fundamental. But if you’re working on a task force to develop a suggestion system then you’re one level removed.
  • If you’re talking to a customer, that’s fundamental. If you’re talking about customers you’re probably one level removed.
  • If you’re involved in anything in the list below, you’re one level removed from the fundamentals of your company and you will not be missed if you are abducted by aliens.

Not fundamental

  • Quality Faire
  • Process Improvement Team
  • Recognition committee
  • Employee satisfaction survey
  • Suggestion system
  • ISO 9000
  • Standards
  • Policy improvement
  • Reorganization
  • Budget process
  • Writing vision statements
  • Writing mission statements
  • Writing an “approved equipment list”

These “one off” activities are irresistible. You can make a convincing argument for all of them. You couldn’t run a company, for example, without a budget process. I’m not suggesting you try. But I think you can focus more of your energy on the fundamentals (people and product) by following a simple rule for all the “one off” activities.

Rule for “one off” activities: consistency. Resist the urge to tinker. It’s always tempting to “improve ” the organization structure, or to rewrite the company policy to address a new situation, or to create committees to improve company morale. Individually, all those things seem to make sense. But experience shows that you generally end up with something that is no more effective than what you started with.

For example, companies tinker endlessly with the formula for employee compensation. Rarely does this result in happiness and more productive employees. The employees redirect their energies toward griping and preparing resumes, the managers redirect their energies toward explaining and justifying the new system.

The rule of consistency would direct you toward keeping your current compensation plan- warts and all- unless it is a true abomination. The company that focuses on fundamentals will generate enough income to make any compensation plan seem adequate.

The best example of a fruitless, “one off” activity that seems like a good idea is the reorganization. Have you seen an internal company reorganization that dramatically improved either the effectiveness of the employees or the quality of the product?

Sometimes there are indirect benefits because reorganization is a good excuse for weeding out the ninnies, but that hardly justifies the disruption. The rule of consistency would say it’s best to keep the organization as it is, unless there’s a fundamental shift in the business. Add or subtract people as needed, but leave the framework alone. Let the employees spend time on something besides reordering business cards.

Many of the ” one off” activities start taking care of themselves if you’re doing a good job with your people and your products. A Company with a good product rarely needs a Mission Statement. Effective employees will suggest improvements without being on a quality team. Nobody will miss the Employee recognition Committee if the managers are effective and routinely recognize good performance. The budget process will suddenly look very simple if you’re making money (by focussing on your products).

As far as consistency goes, I would make an exception for changes that are radical enough for “reengineering” a process. It is the fiddling I object to, not elimination or major streamlining.

Out at Five

I developed a conceptual model for a perfect company. The primary objective of this company is to make employees as effective as possible. The best products usually come from the most effective employees, so employee effectiveness is the most fundamental of the fundamentals.

The goal of the hypothetical company is to get the best work out of the employees and make sure they leave work by five o’ clock. Finishing by five o’clock is so central to everything that follows that I named the company OA5 (Out at five) to reinforce the point. If you let his part of the concept slip, the rest of it falls apart.

The goal of OA5 is to guarantee that the employee who leaves at 5 PM has done a full share of work and everybody realizes it. For that to happen an OA5 company has to do things differently than an ordinary company.

Companies use a lot of energy trying to increase the employee satisfaction. That’s nice of them, but let’s face it-work sucks. If people liked work they’d do it for free. The reason we have to pay people to work is that work is inherently unpleasant compared to the alternatives. At OA5 we recognize that the best way to make employees satisfied about their work is to help them get away from it as much as possible.

An OA5 company isn’t willing to settle for less productivity from the employees, just less time. The underlying assumptions for OA5 are:

  • Happy employees are more productive and creative than unhappy ones.
  • There’s a limit to how much happiness you can get while you’re at work. Big gains in happiness can only be made by spending more time away from work.
  • The average person is only mentally productive a few hors a day no matter how many hours are “worked”.
  • People know how to compress their activities to fit a reduced time. Doing so increases both their energy and their interests. The payoff is direct and personal –they go home early.
  • A Company can’t do much to stimulate happiness and creativity, but it can do a lot to kill them. The trick for the company is to stay out of the way. When companies try to encourage creativity it’s like a bear dancing with an ant. Sooner or later the ant will realize it’s a bad idea, although the bear might not.

Staying out of the way

Most people are creative by nature and happy by default. It doesn’t seem that way because modern management is designed to squash those impulses. An OA5 is designed to stay out of the way and let the good things happen. Here’s how:

  1. Let the employees dress any way they want, decorate their work places any way they want, format memos any way they want. Nobody has demonstrated that these areas have any impact on productivity. But when you “manage” those things you send a clear signal that conformity is valued above either efficiency or creativity. It’s better to get out of the way and reinforce the message that you expect people to focus on what’s important.
  2. Eliminate any artificial “creativity” processes in the company, such as the Employee Suggestion Plan or Quality Teams. Creativity comes naturally when you’ve done everything else right. If you have a good e-mail system, a stable organization chart, and an unstressed workplace the good ideas w2ill get to the right people without any help. The main thing is to let people know that creativity is okay and get out of the way.

What does an OA5 manager do?

“Staying out of the way” isn’t much of a job description for a manger. So if you want to be a manager in an OA5 company you’ll need to do actual work too. Here are the most useful activities I can think of for the manager:

  1. Eliminate the assholes. Nothing can drain the life force out of your employees as much as a few sadistic assholes who seem to exist for the sole purpose of making life hard for others.
  2. Make sure your employees are learning something every day. Ideally they should lean things that directly help on the job, but learning anything at all should be encouraged. The more you know, the more connections form in your brain and the easier every task becomes. Learning creates job satisfaction and supports a person’s ego and energy level. As an OA5 manager you need to make sure every person is learning something every day. Here are some ways :
  • Support requests for training even when not directly job related.
  • Share your own knowledge freely and ask others to do the same, ideally in small digestible chunks.
  • Make trade magazines and newspapers available
  • If the budget allows, try to keep employees in current computers and software. Make Internet connections available.
  • Support experimentation sometimes even when you know it’s doomed (if the cost is low).
  • Make teaching a part of everybody’s job description. Reward employees who do a good job of communicating useful information to co-workers.

Collectively all these little things create an environment that supports curiosity and learning. Imagine a job when after you’ve screwed up your boss says, “What did you learn?” instead of “What the hell were you thinking?”

  1. Teach employees how to be efficient. Lead by example, but also continuously reinforce the following behavior in others:
  • Do creative work in the morning and do routine, brainless work in the afternoon. For example, staff meetings should be held in the afternoon (if at all). This can have a huge impact on people’s actual and perceived effectiveness.
  • Keep meetings short. Get to the point and get on. Make it clear that brevity and clarity is prized. The reward for brevity is the ability to leave at 5 o’clock with a clear conscience. Every company says that brevity is good but only an OA5 company rewards it directly.
  • Blow off low priority activities and make it clear why. Don’t be sucked into an activity because it’s the polite thing to do. If it’s a “one off” activity, say no. Say why you’re saying no. Be direct.
  • Respectfully interrupt people who talk too long without getting to the point. At first it will seem rude. Eventually it gives everybody permission to do the same, and that’s a tradeoff that can be appreciated. Remember, there’s a reward-you get out at five.
  • Be efficient in little things. For example, rather than some Byzantine process for doling out office supplies, add $25 a month to each employee’s paycheck as a “supply stipend” and let employees buy whatever they need from their local store. If they spend less, they keep the difference.
  • If you create an internal memo with a typo, just line it out and send it. Never reprint it. Better yet, stick with e-mail.

A culture of efficiency starts with the everyday things that you can directly control: clothes, meeting lengths, conversations with co-workers and the like. The way you approach these everyday activities establishes the culture that will drive your fundamental activities.

What message does a company send when it huddles its managers together for several days to produce a Mission statement that sounds something like this:

“We design integrated world-class solutions on a worldwide basis”

Answer: it sends a message that the manager’s can’t write can’t think and can’t identify priorities.

Managers are obsessed with the big picture. They look for the big picture in Vision Statements and Mission statements and Quality programs. I think the big picture is hidden in the details. It is in the clothes, the office supplies, the causal comments and the coffee. I’m all for working for the big picture, if you know where to find it.

Finally- and this is the last time I’m going to say it- we’re all idiots and we’re going to make mistakes. That’s not necessarily bad. I have a saying ” Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

Keep your people fresh, happy and efficient. Set a target and get out of their way. Let art happen. Some times idiots can accomplish wonderful things.

Along with all the smiles and groans and winces and good entertainment, I’ve learned a lot from Adams and Dilbert along the way. Congratulations to Scott for a tremendous run, and I’m looking forward to the next 25 years, or as long as Adams feels motivated to keep Dilbert coming.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

 

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