A site of endless curiosity

Outing Scott Adams – the creator of the Dilbert Comic Strip

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dilbert_instoryThe usual corporate scenario

In the northwest suburbs of Chicago is the corporate headquarters of a particular global company.  This company occupies two towers of about 20 floors each.  In each tower is a bank of elevators.  At the opposite side of each elevator bank is an area where there is a coffee maker, refrigerator, microwave oven, dishes, utensils, and cabinets – everything that makes life livable in the workplace.  There is also a bulliten board in these areas.

The Ritual

There is sort of a ritual at this company.  It happens once every month or so.  The ritual is performed by the Human Resource Department.  At the appointed time, a human resources staff member makes a “sweep”.  The “sweep” is to go to each floor in each tower – that’s 20 floors in 2 towers in 2 areas – to check and pull down any Dilbert cartoons that the employees post on the bullien boards.  That’s 20×2×2, or 80 bulletin board that need to be swept of Dilbert comic strips.

So who is Dilbert ?

Dilbert is a bespectacled buckethead with a perpetually upturned tie and a pocket-protector worn as a coat of arms. He slaves as an engineer in some vast corporate cubicle hive, dodging lethal directives from dunderheaded managers. His creator, Scott Adams, writes from personal experience: Adams spent 17 years in a cubicle himself, first at Crocker Bank and later at Pacific Bell.

Who is Scott Adams ?

So it seems the real problem is Scott Adams.  If Adams was not creating those Dilbert cartoons then coprorate america human resources departments would not have to spend so much time erradicating these cartoons from bulletin boards in corporate envorinments.

I am not a Dilbert fan – didn’t really appeal to me.  But I do know that Dilbert is popular among certain segments of beleagured employees of large corporations.  To these folks, Dilbert is a hero.  One would think that Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, is one of those beleagured engineers like Dilbert himself.

Will the real Scott Adams please stand up

If you think that Scott Adams is a” bespectacled buckethead” like Dilbert you’ve been taken for a ride.  Quite the opposite, Scott Adams has an MBA from University of California Berkeley.  If you think that Adams writes from some the perspective of benevolance of engineers who live in fabric cubicles – maybe not.

Why does Adams write from the perspective of Dilbert and not management?  Simple.  It’s consumer segments and size.  It’s the MBA working for Scott Adams.

According to Adams

This is where the MBA helps out. I just did the math: For every boss there are about ten employees. Do you want to sell a product to one boss or to ten employees? I had to go with the ten-to-one advantage.

So, Adams writes to a particular audience, the employees that post his cartoons on the bulletin boards and cost corporate america so much money to remove, because that is the largest segment and makes the most money. Hmmm.

The other side of Adams

The other side of Adams – the antithesis of Dilbert – is the MBA Scott Adams.  Having an MBA gives Adams a different perspective on corporate life that, had Adams not earned the MBA, he would not have.

What’s the value of the MBA according to Adams…

I know that I came out of the MBA program much, much better prepared to do anything. And when I encounter people who have not had a similar educational experience, the thing I’m amazed at is that they don’t know what they don’t know. So they don’t know they’re missing anything…

…That’s the scary thing. I didn’t know that I was missing anything. And frankly, I didn’t go to school to learn; I went to school to get a degree so that people would think I was smart, but I wouldn’t actually have to be smart. My biggest surprise was that I actually took away from that experience skills so valuable that, for me, they made the difference between success and not success.

More on the assessment of his success – according to Adams

Most cartoonists follow a process where they create a cartoon, and they send it to the syndicate. Then, the syndicate figures out which newspapers are actually going to print it, and then a newspaper prints it and sends it to the guy who reads it and decides if it’s funny. The cartoonist never knows whether the reader laughs or doesn’t laugh. It’s a one-way path.

In business school, you learn to build channels to let customers tell you what they’re thinking. That’s not obvious to a lot of cartoonists. In fact, it’s not obvious to a lot of businesses— many businesses still think they have to guess what the customer wants.

What does MBA-Adams really think about the hero Dilbert ?

Here is a section from the articles you will find in the Resource section of this posting

This undercurrent is constant in Adams’ work. He writes, “You can test a person’s importance in the organization by asking how much RAM his computer has.” The more expensive memory chips you find in a person’s system, the higher the rank, right? Read on: “Anybody who knows the answer to that question is not a decision-maker.”

“Dilbert” takes a familiar tradition of worker-championing populism and mixes it with a little nerd-championing elitism. Yet it never partakes of technogeek-cultist obnoxiousness — mostly because these technologists’ sense of superiority is so patently a compensation for their powerlessness.

This gets to the tragedy I see in some corporate workplaces.  People who want to climb the corporate ladder but simply do not know how to do it.  They end their career at the place where they started.  That is, they never get thier first management promotion and retire where they started – as an individual contributor  – a position with no management or leadership responsibility.

As a reaction, these people create a fortress of technology competency and an air of superiority which, according to Adams, “is patently a compensation for their powerlessness” within the organization.  In fact, this reaction only diminishes and almost ensure’s that these folks never get promoted.  This is the ultimate career fate of Dilbert as projected by Scott Adams:

In one strip, Dilbert, called upon to talk to students about careers in engineering, describes his life:

“For the next twenty years I’ll sit in a big box called a cubicle. It’s like a restroom stall but with lower walls. I spend most of my time hoping the electromagnetic fields from my office equipment aren’t killing me.”

The observation by Adams that decision-makers don’t know how much ram in in thier machines is accurate.  Knowing such things is  not the substance of business or organizational leadership.  ( Read our related article on The Leadership Pipleline: From Loading Dock to CEO in 6 painful steps. Or, Navigating the Leadership Pipeline )

The Dilbert Principle

The Dilbert principle is closely related to the Peter Principle made famous by Lawerence J Peter in 1968.

The Peter Principle: “In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence.”

The Dilbert Principle:  “The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management.”

According to Adams the Peter principle had to be superceeded.  The Peter Principle was the golden age when people on their way to upper management were at least competent at some stage.  In the Dilbert principle this state is skipped and ineffectiveve workers are moved to management without having to pass through the competent stage.

Move over for The Jack Welch Principle

Pretty funny – but only true in the most dysfunctional of organizations.  Thanks to the influence of Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, the idea of the Vitality Curve spread far and wide.  In this approach both the Peter Principle and the Dilbert Principle are repealed.  The new principle is simply to remove the incompetent and ineffective workers- the bottom 10% – and get on with the business of the corporation. 

Good advice from Adams

In the articles you can read cited at the end of this posting you will get some good advice from Adams

on forming good teams…

What would be your best advice to business schools operating today? Are there lessons to be learned sothat people can operate as effectively and honorably as possible?

“I think that everything that causes pain and frustration in business is caused by the same problem, which is expecting bad people to change. So many managers think, “Well, he screwed me 25 times in a row, but this 26th time, I’m feeling lucky!”

I’ve noticed when something works, it’s because, by sheer coincidence, a group got together that didn’t have an idiot among them to stop everything, or it’s because the group had one and got rid of him. So, that kind of social engineering is really important to learn. For example, if you look at Steve Jobs’ success, I’d bet you’d find out that when he puts together his groups, he viciously gets rid of the bad people. Once you’ve done that, you have a tremendous ability

on failure and success…

That’s the beauty of the capitalist system. Most people think life and business are like Las Vegas, that if you go there and keep gambling, you’ll simply leave with no money. But that’s not true. Life and business actually work the other way, because they involve your time and hopes.

The capitalist system allows nine failures for every winner, so you’re either one of the people who will fail a few times and quit, or you’re one of the few people who will keep trying and win. If all the people who quit had kept going, they would have been as successful as I have been with “Dilbert.” But they didn’t. If I could pick one thing that contributed to my success, it was that I tried many things and I didn’t quit.


We have successfully out’ed Scott Adams.  Scott Adams has an MBA.  If you enjoy the Dilbert comic strip – perhaps you are sleeping with the enemy.


Interviews with Scott Adams
An Interview with Scott Adams creator of Dilbert
Hero of a Thousand Workspaces
Dilbert’s a weasel and so are you

The Dilbert Antidote (Forced Ranking)

Perhaps the greatest additional benefit resulting from the process came in the comments made by many of the managers and executives as, exhausted, they left the room at the close of the session: that they had for the first time truly understood the depth of the company’s top-talent pool and recognized where leadership peaks and valleys existed. The company’s annual succession-planning event had never generated the depth of analysis or the candid scrutiny of talent that the forced ranking session had produced.

The Jack Welch Vitality Curve is also known as Forced Ranking.  This is an excerpt from a book that explains how it was carried out in one anonymous company.  There will be no Dilbert cartoons in this company.
Read about Forced Ranking as it was actually practiced in both a large and small company.

Written by frrl

February 24, 2009 at 6:30 am

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