I just finished reading The Dilbert Principle for what must be the fourth time. I just love that book. Dilbert must be the most popular comic about the "office space" industry. The dorky Dilbert has bizarre adventures in too small cubicles, doing meaningless work for a clueless PHB with insane people and talking animals around him. Ironically, the reason so many people like the comic is that it they recognize much of the ordeals Dilbert goes through. This quote by Guy Kawasaki pretty much sums it up:
"There are only two kinds of companies," he says. "Those that recognize they're just like 'Dilbert,' and those that are also like 'Dilbert' but don't know it yet."
The real-world truths inside the comics and books are seen by many as valuable and accurate. In fact, even some business management education programs like this Berkeley one consider "The Dilbert Principle" recommended reading in their program.
So why does Dilbert look that much like the real world? Well, for starters, the author, Scott Adams, based a lot of the comics on real life stories submitted by readers and his own experience as an engineer. But, in the book he also starts with an interesting thesis on why his ridiculous comics are such a close match with reality: "we are all idiots!".
The thesis may seem like just another cynical joke, but Adams actually does give a fairly convincing argument on why "we are all idiots" in his book. Summarized in my own words:
People do not have a constant intelligence: the cognitive capability of the brain is not the same all the time. Even exceptionally bright people can think up a stupid idea in an unguarded moment. Being considered smart is not a safeguard for not being an idiot at times. And being considered dumb does not mean you'll never have a good idea. The brain may need a good night of sleep, a clear mental state, a certain level of alcohol, or it is just chemical chance. Truth is, we are still too stupid to really understand why and when we get to think up smart things.
People deal with ideas they do not fully understand: back in the good old days, people wore bear skins, slept in a cave, and threw pointy shaped rocks on a stick at animals to get food. Once communication technology advanced, technology and concepts spread based on ideas by a tiny few exceptionally smart people (who spent a lot of time thinking about them). The rest of the population only barely understands enough to cope with the results, but cannot reason or act rationally on these advanced ideas. The process of natural evolution got short-circuited. Evolutionary, we are not much past the Neanderthal stage. Technologically, we are in over our head.
People are not governed by logic: in our personal life, we tend to accept emotional and impulsive behavior as something normal. In the professional world, people tend to expect that all activities are based on a logical structure. When you think about it, most activities precede very little to none rational activity (when was the last time when you rationally evaluated what to do next today?). However, to meet the expectation most actions are often rationalized after the fact. This leads to weird explanations that cause sensible actions to look stupid, or may trigger some idiot reaction based on the rationalized fallacy.
So can we turn this harsh conclusion on the limited human capabilities into a positive note? Well, for one, most current processes that deal with people consider humans some constant, interchangeable cog, void of any emotions, impulses or fluctuations in capability. If we could tune our process to better accommodate our human flaws they would be much more effective!
Pair programming for instance transforms evaluation and feedback into a social, ongoing activity. From a purely logical point of view, pair programming would not be very efficient. If you consider both humans in the pair potential idiots, evolved from bearskin wearing rockslinging cavedwellers, it makes a lot more sense.
Using physical representation in an interactive priorities setting process, logically, is worse then a list in a spread sheet. However, consider that a row of cards on a table allow a better usage of human sensory capabilities (you can grab a card, spatial information, colors, shape, etc). It frees our brain from fiddling with a mouse, looking at tiny menus and wading through crazy Excel menus.
I guess the bottom line is: do something smart with the fact that we are all idiots. 🙂