The Dilbert Principle by Scott Adams
Why Is Business So Absurd?
Because people are idiots. But nowadays idiocy is a condition everybody slips into constantly: life is too complicated to be smart all the time.
The human brain is wired such that you make up your mind first and rationalize second (the area of the brain responsible for rational thought doesn’t even activate until after you do something). As a result, you’re convinced your decisions are based on reason.
Absurdity in the workplace is more noticeable than in everyday life. The central tension is that we expect others to act rationally even though we are intrinsically irrational.
Our current problems have two primary causes:
An ever-increasing population improved the odds of geniuses being born even though the general population wasn’t getting much smarter. Paper then allowed each of these geniuses to share their ideas. It enabled them to capture and communicate their genius without having to pass it on genetically.
It’s important to remember that the technology surrounding us was created by a tiny percentage of people. The complexity of life has increased geometrically while our brains have remained relatively unchanged.
The Dilbert Principle
The “Peter Principle” states that capable workers are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. Consequently, while they make bad decisions due to poor management skills they are still seasoned veterans making informed decisions.
The “Dilbert Principle,” on the other hand, states that the most ineffective workers are moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management.
While happier employees generally work harder, if they get too happy their egos will expand and they’ll want more money. The optimal balance of morale for employee productivity can be described best as: happy, but with low self-esteem.
There are myriad humiliation techniques at management’s disposal to reduce employee self-esteem:
- Cubicles are a reminder of the employee’s marginal value to the firm
- Hoteling denies the employee a permanent workspace
- Making employees wait sends the message that they have no human presence
- Employee recognition programs (although it’s possible to reach a level of management where they don’t exist)
- Undervaluing employee contributions (value begets self-esteem which begets requests for money)
- Furniture (you’re only as important as your furniture… at peak levels of dignity!)
- Dress clothes
While the stated objective of business communication is “the clear transfer of information,” the real objective is to advance one’s own career. Consequently, the best kind of communication conveys the singular message “I am worthy of a promotion.”
The most common forms of business communication include:
- Mission statements – awkward sentences demonstrating management’s inability to think clearly
- Vision statements – high-level guides inspiring employees to think of themselves as being involved in something more important than their jobs
- Presentations – transfer resources away from accomplishing objectives; expend them on explaining how you’re doing
- Motivational talks – aim to increase employee competitiveness for which the transfer of information is unnecessary
- Announcements – convey the message that while something is happening, you aren’t important enough to meaningfully be informed about it
- Group writing (ensure every sentence satisfies all the objectives of every person)
- Group names (sound vital but don’t attract too much work)
- Talking like a manager (substitute jargon for common words to sound smart)
Great Lies of Management
Examples of the most pervasive lies told by management include:
- “Employees are our most valuable asset.”
- “I have an open-door policy.”
- “We’re reorganizing to better serve our customers.”
- “Performance will be rewarded.”
- “Training is a high priority.”
- “Your input is important to us.”
To deal with these, employees should apply the What Is More Likely Test, stating every interpretation of reality and asking, “What is more likely?” (e.g. regarding the last lie, the reality is that to the manager, employee input simply equates to more work).
Machiavellian Methods (by Dogbert)
Machiavellian methods for employee self-advancement:
- Provide bad advice to co-workers
- Shade the truth – avoid being called a liar while still misleading people
- Withhold information – ineffective people can cling to power by creating a monopoly on information
- Defensive layers for the monopolizer: (1) insist you don’t have the information and act like the requester is crazy for expecting you to; (2) say you’re too busy to explain the information; (3) insist the information isn’t ready; (4) exhibit a bad personality; (5) give the requester incomplete information and hope they leave thinking they got what they needed
- Remember that two wrongs make a right, almost – two wrongs sometimes cancel each other out, which is better than one wrong
- Take advantage of the power of association (you’ll be judged by the company you keep)
- Threaten retribution (which has the most potential to help your career)
- Think of bad assets as potential viruses that can infect your enemies within the company (relatedly, never give a bad performance review)
- Speak out against things that are already unpopular
- Disparage co-workers to improve your relative standing
- Concentrate on form over substance (the world is full of shallow and ignorant people)
- Remember that the longer your documents are the less information people will remember, fewer people will read and the smarter you’ll look
- Out-dress your peers so your clothes will be the ones selected for promotion
- Look busy (specifically, carry stuff home with you at night)
- Appeal to greed (disarms a person’s common sense)
- Get others to do your work while appealing to the principle of “efficiency”
- Exaggerate your talents
- Intimidate with loudness – speak loudly and act irrationally, consistently
- Manage sexy projects (a project’s worth is based on how it will sound on your resume)
- Collect the opinions of people who care about a decision and pretend your plan is based on what the majority wants
- Manipulate the media – all stories focus on something that’s very bad or very good so help the writer determine what’s good about your situation
- Don’t fall into the honesty trap (most feedback is a direct challenge to the manager)
- Take credit for other peoples’ work
- Offer false sacrifices
- Work on projects with no verifiable results
- Send people to the legal department (a risk-free “assassin”)
- Manage the budget group to take control of the strategy and careers of every person in the department
Virtual Hourly Compensation is the total amount of compensation you receive per hour. It includes your salary, bonuses, health plan, inflated travel reimbursement claims, stolen office supplies, airline frequent flier awards, coffee, donuts, newspapers, personal phone calls, illegitimate sick days, Internet surfing, use of printers, etc.
Adams’ Law of Compensation Equilibrium states that an employee’s virtual hourly compensation stays constant over time. Nature will adjust to workload changes either your compensation or perceived work hours to maintain equilibrium.
Real Work + Appearance of Work = Total Work
Activities that increase the appearance of work include surfing the Internet, using personal e-mail, attending meetings, talking to your boss, upgrading your computer and testing new software.
The office is designed for work, not productivity. Telecommuting substitutes a couple hours of productivity for ten hours of work. However, you must create the illusion of unhappiness to justify the continuation of your telecommuting.
When it comes to stealing office supplies, the secret is to avoid getting too greedy.
Any time you use a computer it looks like “work” to the casual observer. If caught, claim you’re teaching yourself new software.
Waiting for information from co-workers is a win-win situation for all since everyone can blame their woes on someone else.
Voicemail has freed more employees from work than any other innovation. Its advantages include escaping immediate work, screening messages and creating the impression that you’re overworked
The manager’s objectives are to make you work harder, confess crimes against productivity and thusly justify your low salary. The employee’s singular objective is to bilk as much money out of the company as possible.
The only defense against the inevitable “development trap” is proactively identifying development needs that don’t sound bad.
Employee advantages during performance reviews:
- Managers are too lazy to write your review without your input
- Managers are afraid you might cry or become violent
Best practices for describing your own accomplishments:
- Don’t feel limited to projects you’ve actually worked on
- Focus on “cost avoidance” (the difference between an actual screw up and a potentially larger one)
- Utilize acronyms
- Use buzzwords
- Include testimonials from unverifiable sources
- Include everything you did last year and plan to do next year
- Include anything done by someone with a similar name or appearance
Be sure to work in a group of under-performers (who generally get low raises, meaning more for you). The alternative (working with highly qualified co-workers) is a no-win situation for all.
The secret to the 360-degree review is being the last person to finish your review forms.
It’s important to remember your boss will scale back whatever you say about yourself. However, he has no way of knowing how much to scale back. The best strategy, therefore, is to lie aggressively.
Pretending to Work
There are three types of employees:
- Those who work hard regardless of compensation
- Those who avoid work and appear lazy
- Those who avoid work and appear productive (“Contented Employees”)
Best practices of a Contented Employee:
- Be a consultant on a team (requires some expertise)
- Remember when a person is smarter than you it’s hard to tell exactly how much smarter
- Seek assignments that depend on incompetent co-workers, overworked managers and / or venders
- Change jobs frequently (the longer you stay on a job the more work you’ll be asked to do)
- Complain about your workload
- Utilize your voicemail
- Arrive (leave) before (after) your boss arrives (leaves)
- Keep a messy desk so you look like a hard worker
- Come late and leave early for meetings
- Try to study things – getting to “analyze” allows you to criticize the work of others
- Work on long-range projects
- Look incompetent
- Avoid meaningless assignments (mostly go to people sitting closest to the boss’s office or are the next person to enter the boss’s office)
- Plan vacations strategically
Swearing: The Key to Success for Women
Men are expected to swear, so it means little when they do. Women swearing can be shocking and attention-grabbing, a sign of female power as well as a disregard for boundaries.
Female success factors in the workplace include:
- Who you know
- What you do
How to Get Your Way
Tips to getting your way:
- The “final suggestion maneuver” makes you look like a rational deal maker
- Sarcasm allows you to combat someone with bad ideas without having to argue the data by doing research
- The “big picture maneuver” takes advantage of your co-workers’ impulse to be the one who sees the “big picture”
- Utilize the dinosaur strategy by ignoring new management directives (the environment will change before you have to do anything)
Marketing and Communications
While every customer wants the best product at the lowest price, there’s always someone who either can’t differentiate or doesn’t have access to alternatives. Market segmentation involves identifying these segments, the most important of which is the “stupid rich.”
Product differentiation allows you to hide your product’s trust cost by:
- Linking payments to exotic interest rates
- Offering confusing discount plans
- Giving inconvenient coupons
- Comparing your low cost plan with competitors’ high cost plans
- Offering leases to people who are bad at math
- Assessing penalties for late payments
- Offering discounts for initial payments
- Selling products lacking features that would make them useful
When you offer a bad product at a high price, marketing focuses on screwing customers over instead of educating them (effectively taking advantage of the goodwill created by competitors).
When it comes to advertising, a dollar spent on brainwashing is more cost-effective than one spent on product improvement. To target men your message should say two things: (1) this product will get you dates with models and (2) this product will save you time and money, which you’ll need if you want to date models. To target women, the message should say: if you buy this product you’ll be a model.
While product decisions are driven by internal politics, understanding the customer is nonetheless necessary to exhibit an “I’m-more-customer-focused-than-you” attitude.
Market research was made possible by the discovery that consumers make rational, well-reasoned decisions. All that is necessary is crafting an unbiased survey and asking a statistically valid subset of consumers what they want…
If all else fails you can create a market by inventing a problem and providing the solution.
Consultants have a number of advantages over employees:
- They aren’t dumb enough to be regular employees
- They make excellent scapegoats since they eventually leave
- They can easily schedule time on the boss’s calendar
- They are often more attractive
- They will return calls since it constitutes billable time
- They work long hours
Consultants don’t need much experience in an industry to be experts. They will ultimately recommend you do whatever you’re not doing now. In the meantime, they will take your money and annoy your employees while searching for ways to extend the consulting contract.
Consultants use a set of decision tools that involve creating “alternative scenarios” based on different assumptions. Any assumptions that don’t support their predetermined recommendation are discounted as being uneconomical.
Steps to build a business plan:
- Gather information
- Ignore it
Senior management will always adjust future sales estimates to where they “know they should be,” creating a gap between what employees think they can do and what management tells them to do. The gap can be closed by adjusting assumptions since assumptions are just the stuff you make up. Never feel constrained by reality when crafting the assumptions for the business case:
- Make irrational comparisons, creating bad alternatives that make yours look good
- Make unrealistic revenue projections
Steps to achieving business plan buy-in:
- Executives set the company direction
- Employees rank the value of their activities in supporting the company’s objectives (every activity is a top priority)
- Employee input is collected
- The budget department uses employee input to fuel discussion (but recommendations do not reflect)
- A technical writer is blamed for the plan making no sense
- The plan is locked up because it’s too proprietary to share with the employees
Engineers, Scientists, Programmers and Other Odd People
The secret to dealing with technology-oriented people is understanding their motivations:
- Social skills
- Engineers have rational objectives for social interactions: get it over with ASAP, avoid getting invited to something unpleasant and demonstrate mental superiority
- “Normal” people expect: stimulating conversation, social contacts and a feeling of connectedness
- Fascination with gadgets
- Engineers like solving problems (they will create their own if none are available)
- Engineers see the world as a toy box filled with sub-optimized and feature-poor toys
- Engineers recognize that one’s appearance only bothers other people and is not worth optimizing
- Engineers love of Star Trek because they are portrayed as heroes
- Dating and social life
- Engineers can’t place appearance above function, don’t like small talk because no useful information is exchanged and ignore body language because it’s imprecise
- Engineers are recognized as marriage material due to their intelligence, dependability, employment, honesty and handiness around the house
- Engineers are almost always honest (keep away from customers and romantic interests)
- Engineers approach spending situations as optimization problems, namely escaping the situation while retaining the most possible money
- Logic provides engineers with insight into any field; they’re happy to share their wisdom and give advice, even in areas in which they have no experience
- Engineers have the ability to concentrate on one subject to the complete exclusion of everything else in the environment
- Engineers have a much tougher risk/reward calculation than normal people; to avoid risk, they will advise an activity is impossible or uneconomical
- Two things are important to the engineer: (1) how smart they are and (2) how many devices they own
- The easiest way to get an engineer to solve a problem is to appeal to their ego and declare it insolvable
Relatively speaking, change makes us dumber by adding new information to the universe. Change is good for the people causing it since they understand the new information and grow smarter relative to everyone else.
Techniques to facilitate change in the office include:
- Content-free communications which string everyone along until the change is complete
- Rewarding employees who embrace the change
- Succumbing to perpetual motion whereby change never stops
The Budget Uncertainty Principle states that changing the budget often enough causes employees to be afraid to do anything that draws attention (for where there is fear there is also low spending).
You can guarantee your fair share of the pie by exaggerating your value and requirements.
It’s best to humor budget analysts since they make recommendations to management. If forced to defend your budget, the best technique is lying. Boredom and confusion are also your allies so use confusing charts and spreadsheets. They should convey two messages:
- “I have researched my budget thoroughly.”
- “Smart people would understand this.”
Never leave money in your budget at year-end. Next year’s budget will be decreased accordingly.
Low sales are the result of the sales force lacking proper incentives.
Tips for the sales professional:
- Avoid discussing costs (encourages rational decision making)
- Make irrelevant comparisons
- Be a “partner” (vendors provide products, partners provide “solutions”)
- Find the decision makers (simultaneously the least knowledgeable and most likely to believe the salesperson)
Meetings are a type of performance art with a recurring cast of characters:
- Master of the Obvious – feels a responsibility to share his wisdom at every opportunity
- Well-Intentioned Sadist – believes meetings should hurt
- Whining Martyr – crafts complaints into tales illustrating how valuable and intelligent he is
- Rambling Man – redirects any topic toward an unrelated event in which he participated (women come across as babbling so must be a man)
- Sleeper – a stage prop (don’t dress in a way that draws attention)
The basic project stages include:
- Naming the project – the name should convey strength, confidence and be distinct but easy to remember
- Selecting the team leader – since the leader has no special talent, he can sit through meetings without worrying that talent isn’t being applied
- Determining requirements – interview people who don’t know what they want but know when they need it (“end users”)
- Garnering management support – management itself is the biggest obstacle to a project’s success
- Typical support includes demanding status reports, appointing oversight committees and trying to cut funding
- Scheduling the project – the lies and guesses of the team are organized and ignored until an external force determines the actual due date
- Completing the project – doesn’t happen
If companies documented every process and job description in the organization, it could solve the problem of what to do with all that spare time!
ISO 9000 is rewarding for consultants, especially those unable to sell “quality” programs, who reinvent themselves instead as ISO 9000 experts.
The first round of downsizing erases people in jobs that sound good but provide no real value. The second round forces the remaining employees to work harder to compensate for the duties of the departed workers. The third round eliminates essential jobs in areas where the impact won’t be noticed for at least a year. Anything past this relies upon the promises of “reengineering”.
Brightsizing is a phenomenon in which the first people to leave a shrinking company are the brighter people. The employees who remain produce relatively low-quality work but compensate by working longer and producing more work per person.
How to Tell If Your Company Is Doomed
Warning signs of a company going downhill include:
- The installation, reduction in size or increase in the number of occupants of cubicles
- Too much teamwork focus – good time management involves blowing off co-workers as they will take advantage of you if you’re a good team player
- Presentations to management – most companies can either: (1) accomplish something or (2) prepare presentations about how much is being accomplished
- Constant reorganizations – managers shuffle things around to conceal what they’ve done
- Too much attention paid to process improvements – signals the smart employees are gone while those who remain are trying to simplify
Reengineering involves discovering new approaches to your business processes (as opposed to the “quality” approach, which involves becoming more efficient at the things you shouldn’t be doing). The unrecognized risk is that whatever incompetence is present in the company can be unleashed in epic scale instead of in “quality” portions. Reengineering also tends to reduce the number of employees, causing fear and mistrust in those whose participation is vital.
Common obstacles to reengineering include:
- Silver bullet defense – when asked to donate employees, managers will unload their most incompetent workers
- Camouflage defense – managers who feel threatened will redefine whatever they’re already doing as reengineering
- Reengineering trial – none of the resources proposed for the project are available for the small-scale test of a proposed new reengineered process
[Speaks for itself]
Leadership is an intangible quality with no clear definition. Leaders spend their time thinking about “visions of the future” in the hopes of convincing employees that:
- The leader knows the future and has decided to share it
- The chosen direction is not as obvious as you think
- There are intangible benefits to being an employee
The most important skill is the ability to take credit for things that happen on their own.
New Company Model: OA5
Companies with effective employees and good products usually do well. With this in mind, ask yourself how many activities actually improve the effectiveness of the people or the quality of the product?
When dealing with non-fundamental activities, the key is resisting the urge to tinker. You generally end up with something that’s no more effective than what you started with. A lot of potential “one off” activities take care of themselves if you’re doing a good job with your people and products.
The OA5 (“Out at Five”) Business Model:
- Since the best products come from effective employees, employee effectiveness is paramount
- The goal is to extract the best work from employees and make sure they’re out by 5:00pm
- OA5 assumptions:
- Happy employees are more productive and creative
- There’s a limit to how much happiness you can get at work
- The average person is only mentally productive a few hours a day
- People know how to compress their activities to fit a reduced timeline
- A company can’t easily stimulate happiness and creativity but can do a lot to kill them
- OA5 is designed to stay out of the way:
- Employees can dress how they want, decorate their workspaces, etc.
- Any artificial “creativity” processes in the company are eliminated
- The manager’s role:
- Eliminate the assholes
- Ensure employees have access to learn something everyday
- Create an environment that supports curiosity and learning
- Teach employees how to be efficient