Have you ever wondered why the workplace often feels like you’re living in a Dilbert cartoon? How even the most sensible idea is somehow turned during implementation into something that makes no sense at all? And yet people go on with the senseless implementation, even though they know it’s senseless? Have you ever wondered why that happens not once or twice, but over and over again?
The first Dilbert cartoon was published 1989. This American comic strip written and drawn by Scott Adams now appears in 2000 newspapers worldwide in 65 countries and 25 languages. The cartoons are set in a white-collar, micromanaged technology company featuring the engineer Dilbert as the title character. Dilbert lives in a Kafkaesque world of bureaucracy, where employees' skills and efforts are not rewarded, and busy work is praised. Much of the humor emerges as the audience sees the characters making obviously ridiculous decisions and pursuing those decisions regardless of the consequences.
The cartoon’s success reflects the fact that so many people find themselves in similar work environments and find themselves seemingly powerless to do anything about it. The Kafkaesque world of bureaucracy grinds forward mindlessly. Even attempts at improving are subverted by the culture which turns even sensible ideas into nonsense.
Scott Adams has no difficulty getting material for the cartoons, since readers send him real-life examples on a daily basis. Because Kafkaesque bureaucracy is so widespread, Adams has an endless supply of material and a vast global audience that recognizes that world.
Why are so many millions of sensible, intelligent people acting in this mindless fashion? Why do all the tens of thousands of management books with their individual management fixes make no difference? Why isn’t “something” done about it, not in a Dilbert-like fashion, but "something" that gets to the root of the problem and fixes it for good?
The key is to realize: what is the underlying problem?
It’s actually astonishingly simple. Look carefully at almost any Dilbert cartoon and you will see one underlying theme in almost all of them.
People are being treated as things, rather than as people.
The Dilbert culture turns every human interaction into the pursuit of things—numbers, products, services, outputs, money, profits—regardless of whether it makes sense either to the people doing the work or those for whom the work is being done.
This is the essence of traditional management as taught in business schools and describes in management textbooks. It was enunciated explicitly by the father of traditional management, Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1911 in his book, The Principles of Scientific Management with this prescient ominous declaration:
“In the past, Man has been first. In future, the system must be first.”
In future, people were to be subordinated to “the system”. And so it was to be. First the production line. Then planning, programming and budgeting. As Harold Geneen, the head of ITT, said in 1965, “The goal of management is to make individuals as predictable and controllable as the capital assets for which they are responsible.” Business schools and management textbooks teach students how to pursue this goal. Dilbert cartoons simply depict the implications in the workplace.
In this world, Individual management fixes don’t stick, because traditional management consists of an interlocking set of assumptions, attitudes and practices, that prevent any individual management fix from taking permanent hold. It begins with the object of work as a thing—producing goods and services or making money—and treating those doing the work—both managers and workers—as human resources—i.e. things—to be manipulated, in order to reach the goal. The world is self-sustaining and self-reinforcing.
The alternative—the way to subvert the world of Dilbert—is to put in place a different interlocking set of assumptions, attitudes and practices. These assumptions, attitudes and practices are based on the astounding idea that people should be treated as people.
It begins by seeing the goal of work being to delight clients, rather than to produce goods or services or to make money. It organizes work in groups where people are given the autonomy to say how they should conduct the work so that they can contribute their best and given a clear line of sight to those for whom the work is being done.Their goal is to delight the people for whom the work is being done.
The interesting thing about firms that have organized work in this way is that it is two- to four-times more productive than traditional management, and generates a continuous stream of innovative products and services for clients, as well as deep job satisfaction. It subverts the world of Dilbert cartoons.
To learn more about this radically different approach to management, go here: