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Reprinted without permission from The Wall Street Journal, 5/22/95.

Note: Scott Adams is the current reigning "Funniest Man on the Planet." If you are interested in more of his humor, check out The Dilbert Zone. Also, he no longer works at his Pacific Bell job, but I did not want to change the text of the WSJ article itself.

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:

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.


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.

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