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Entry 1717, on 2015-05-10 at 12:04:16 (Rating 4, Comments)

Many people who work in a large organisation look at Dilbert cartoons and think they were written specifically about them. In the unlikely event you are not aware of this cartoon let me briefly explain: it chronicles the life of Dilbert, an engineer in a large company who is part of a system consisting of out of control office politics, inept bosses, lazy and incompetent workers, pointless projects, and meaningless management speak.

The author of Dilbert, Scott Adams, started drawing it in 1989 and it has been hugely successful, appearing in 200 newspapers in 65 countries. Adams has worked in several large companies and has had extensive personal experience with the dysfunction he documents in the cartoon.

I have been a big fan of Dilbert for many years and have some examples, which seem to apply very accurately to my own work situation, on the wall of my office. I thought I might share a few Dilbert cartoons here and discuss why I think they are pertinent to the situation many people are in at work. Of course, it would be unprofessional to discuss my personal experiences so I will discuss those of my friend, Fred (not his real name), who works in a similar environment to me.

Cartoon 1. Talent versus time...

In this cartoon Dilbert asks "Why does it seem as if most of the decisions in my workplace are made by drunken lemurs?" Another character (a garbage collector) says: "Decisions are made by people who have time, not by people who have talent". Dilbert asks "Why are talented people so busy?". The reply "They're fixing problems made by people who have time."

Regrettably this is so often true. Fred reports that his management effectively have nothing to do except create meaningless paperwork and attend meetings with each other (see another cartoon later in this post), but they do occasionally have to be seen making a decision. These are almost inevitably bad (because the decision makers have no talent), and because management will never admit a mistake the only option is for the people who do the actual work (those with talent) to spend most of their time fixing them.

Cartoon 2. Ignorance and bluffing...

Dilbert's boss comes up to his desk and says "I think we should build an SQL database". Dilbert (sensing the manager has learned but not understood a new word) thinks "Uh-oh". He then thinks "Does he understand what he said or is it something he saw in a trade magazine ad?" So he asks "What colour do you want that database?" The manager replies "I think mauve has the most RAM."

Fred cites numerous examples of managers who really have no technical skills at all and whose ideas generally originate in management-oriented magazines and other similar sources. As a result they have a totally superficial knowledge that is easily exposed by asking the right questions where their answer will often involve a lot of misused terminology or they will revert to meaningless management jargon instead (every second word will be "cloud" or "agile"). That is one reason they generally make decisions without consulting with anyone who actually knows something about the subject.

Cartoon 3. Laughable superficiality...

Dilbert's boss walks into his office and announces "It took us three days at the executive retreat to come up with a name for the new procurement policy." He continues "We named it the procurement operations over-sight policy." Dilbert asks "POOP?" The manager says "Do you now how many managers it takes to come up with a good name?" Dilbert replies "A few more than you had?"

The management at Fred's company/organisation (I can't specify which) did something very similar and came up with similar pointless, laughably childish nonsense. It's insulting that people actually get paid for doing something that would be considered sub-standard in a primary school but it's even worse when those same people spend half their life harassing the workers over doubtful claims of them being "unproductive" when management themselves make a negative contribution to productivity.

Cartoon 4. Meetings...

Dilbert's boss walks into his office and says "Let's have a little pre-meeting to prepare for the meeting tomorrow." Dilbert replies "Whoa! Do you think it's safe to jump right into the pre-meeting meeting without planning it? Then we see Dilbert, his boss and a colleague. The boss says "Okay, let's get this preliminary pre-meeting meeting going". The colleague says to Dilbert "You think you're funny, but you're not."

Meetings are a great way for people with too much spare time (see cartoon 1) to do something. Not only does the person whose idea it is to have the meeting use up a lot of spare time but all the other people invited get to do the same thing. It's not so good when talented people are also required to attend, of course.

Fred reports that on the rare occasions when he attends meetings he sometimes asks what has been actioned from the pervious meeting only to find that nothing was actioned because people were too busy in meetings. The meeting is possibly the greatest farce in the modern workplace.

Cartoon 5. A bit of all of the above...

The boss walks up to the desk of an administrator and says "Carol, schedule a staff meeting." Carol asks "What's the topic?" The boss replies "I plan to fuse six sigma with lean methods to eliminate the gap between our strategy and objectives." Carol says "I'll just say 'waste of time'."

Fred claims that his management team have no clues of their own so tend to lean on whatever trendy management technique they happen to have been exposed to most recently. Management is a subject full of meaningless nonsense or simple, common sense ideas dressed up to look like they have deeper significance. Words like "lean", "nimble", and "agile" are used to describe techniques which fundamentally make some sense and are probably being used by the actual workers anyway. But as soon as they are formalised and turned into a bureaucratic nightmare by managers they lose whatever advantages they might have originally had.

In conclusion, it might seem that if the workplace is so much like the farcical world of Dilbert that we have no hope. That's not quite true because I do occasionally find managers who do quite a decent job. They tend to be the ones who don't try to over-manage the workers lives and who shelter the people with talent from the worst excesses of higher management.

Also there is the idea that large organisations cannot operate any other way and no matter how ridiculous they seem things cannot really be made much better. There may be some truth in that but if it is true then surely we should abandon all hope now!


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