Is Your Project a Dilbert Cartoon?

It happened again the other day at work Management asked me to look at a project to see if it was in trouble. It was. The project was behind schedule and over budget, and little, if anything worked. Hoever, what most indicated trouble was the one think that most often signals trouble with a project in the mid-1990s -- the project had become a Dilbert cartoon to its engineers. This is the worst thing that can happen to a project, a project manager, or an organization.

Dilbert and Engineering Projects

Dilbert is a funny cartoon, at least to its many readers. The humor does stretch the truth. Hoever, creator Scott Adams bases the cartoon on personal experiences and stories that engineers have e-mailed to him. In fact, my workplace is more like a Dilbert cartoon than most of my co-workers want to admit. That's one reason I like the cartoon -- it helps me see the fallacy of many of my management efforts.

In Dilbert, engineers accomplish engineering work only during morning showers. They spend days avoiding managers who have no idea what engineers should be doing.

The managers stress staff meetings, dress codes, and a host of other things that have nothing to do with people happily producing good products. The nameless, faceless organization thinks only about utilizing synergy, quality initiatives, paradigm shifts, and other phrases presented by high-paid consultants.

Once a real project becomes a Dilbert cartoon, it is doomed. Everything that comes tot he engineers from management is a joke. The engineers disregard all instructions because, after all, management really doesn't want anything unless they ask for it four times.

Instead, the engineers apply their creative energy to other pursuits. One of their favorite activities is starting businesses in their cubicles. Another is stalling until the project manager leaves, or until the project dies. It is easy to get away with these activities because the managers don't know what is going on.

Preventing the Dilbert Syndrome

A manager can take four steps to avoid having a project become a Dilbert cartoon:

Read Dilbert. Many of your engineers read it, and you should know what management practice or characteristic is the butt of the current joke.

Avoid doing stupid things. A "stupid thing" is anything that Dilbert's management does. Doing this step depends on doing the previous step.

When a "stupid thing" is actually the best thing to do, go public. For example, perhaps you should establish a quality initiative. Gather the engineers (as per the previous step, don't call it a "staff meeting"). Explain what you want to do and why it isn't a "stupid thing." Hold up some Dilbert cartoons about quality initiatives, laugh at them, and laugh at yourself. Then discuss your idea with the engineers. Let them contribute to and own it.

Sometimes, take reactive approach. For example, perhaps you see Dilbert cartoons posted on doors and bulletin boards with your name written on the forehead of Dilbert's boss. Never take down the cartoons. Read them and laugh at yourself. Laugh again when you ask people why the cartoon is there. Ask what makes them think your project has become a Dilbert cartoon. Find out where you have failed. Then explain what you intended and find out what you should be doing.

To accomplish objectives, project managers must communicate with their engineers. To succeed at this, managers should know how they sound and appear, and should not assume that everyone understands their intentions.

Honesty, integrity, leadership, a sense of humor, and common sense will serve managers well. They will also keep their projects from becoming Dilbert cartoons.

This appeared in The Open Channel column of IEEE's Computer, November 1997