Manager's Journal: The Dilbert Principle

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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, MONDAY, MAY 22, 1995:


Manager's Journal: The Dilbert Principle ---- By Scott Adams


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
messages a day, mostly from people who are complaining about their
own clueless managers. Here are some of my favorite stories, all
allegedly true:


-- 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" springs 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 competence stage.


When I entered the workforce 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 trenches.


Example:


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 skill. 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 wouldn't be the most skilled squirrel; 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.


Not any more -Ed


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