The Dilbert Principle of 21st Century Management

02 November 2013 / by Brian Mackie / Governance, Humour, Opinion, Overview

While walking the short distance between our hotel and Parliament, along Featherston Street with a following gale and against the flow of black-clad pedestrians, Des Lines and I played a game of I Spy A Smile. “First one to spot ten smiley people earns lunch at Rydges Hotel”. This was a prize not to be sniffed at, but neither of us won.

Gazing upon this tide of miserable functionaries, one could not but compare it to the prevailing wind in places like Seoul or Silicon Valley and contemplate the meaning of life for this grim-faced multitude, apparently following a lemming-like, endless routine of drudgery and trudgery.

But this being downtown Wellington, surely a large number of them must be Managers? And Managers should be bright, cheerful, forward-looking, empowered, creative and happy in their work, right?


The Pratfall: It happens when a high-flying Manager gets out of his depth, causing widespread damage below

The Pratfall: It happens when a high-flying Manager gets out of his depth, causing damage to everybody below

For those of us who have spent little time in an office (let alone experienced the nightmare of working in an open-plan one) such an existence is terrifying and mysterious. In the case of aviators, exposure to any sort of office can lead to mild claustrophobia or panic attacks. Many of us are genuinely mystified as to what actually goes on in such hellholes. They wonder, for example, how anyone in the CAA can be rational, judging by much of what is emitted from Asteron House. Are they on the same planet as us? Many aviators truly believe that the people who manage Airways and the Civil Aviation Authority are completely out of touch with what is happening on the ground and in the air.

Well, folks, I have discovered the answer and it is called The Dilbert Principle.

Ignore for a moment the fact that very few employees at the CAA have any kind of experience at the sharp end of aviation. Try to resist that urge to accuse them of hating you because you can fly, or – even worse – that you may be a prick rich enough to afford an aeroplane and they are just jealous and spiteful. Instead, carefully consider their vocation or ambition – which is, in our example, the role of a Manager.

Once upon a time (25 years ago, to be precise), Britain’s economy was bigger than China’s, and it was ruled by Managers. Much the same held true in the United States, where to be a Manager indicated that you were part of an elite group of bright, controlling minds.

But during the last 25 years, the world has turned upside down – as the revered BBC Business commentator Peter Day recently noted in a brilliant summation of the last two and a half decades.

Today, in those outposts where traditional Managers still hold the upper hand, you find atrophy, entropy, political correctness and general paralysis. Where they have assumed their rightful lower position, you find innovation, energy and growth. There are good reasons for this.

Peter Day discovers that there's nothing new under the Sun - just variations on stupidity

Peter Day has discovered that there’s nothing new under the Sun – just variations on ancient stupidity

Peter Day is an experienced journalist who’s seen it all (and is best understood using the ears and brain of someone who knows that there is nothing new under the Sun – just variations on the ancient theme of Folly). He recently found out why the world turned upside down without most of us noticing.

One of the key features is the realignment of the role of Managers.

It’s a bit like the Earth’s poles suddenly reversing, as is predicted. The first people to notice will be pilots. The last people will be their Managers far below, in the air-conditioned office.

It dawned on Day that the reasons for the adjusted role of managers may be found in a cartoon strip called Dilbert. It is hugely popular amongst office workers, but is completely baffling to everyone else, including Managers. This is because Dilbert lampoons The Manager, and you must have worked under one to understand the humour.

The Dilbert Principle is a development of the Peter Principle, which stated that people are invariably promoted to the level of their incompetence. Dilbert’s Principle recognises that in today’s world, it makes no economic sense to promote a creative and productive member of the team to be a manager. What you do with the unimaginative (and therefore uncreative and unprofitable) staffer is deliberately put them into management, to deal with the mundane stuff, such as compliance with stuff created by other managers from places such as government.

Which profit-motivated airline would put its top pilot into a management role? Which government would put its country’s top psychiatrist in charge of the Cabinet (even though this might be a good idea)? Why would anyone in their right mind give up a job they love and are good at, to push pens behind a desk and administer other people’s rules like a nodding dog?

Creativity at work: Steve Jobs imposed on his Apple logo by an admirer. Management was not impressed

Creativity at work: Steve Jobs imposed on the Apple logo by an admirer. Management was not impressed

Two examples of public misunderstanding of management spring to mind. First, Apple, where Steve Jobs is credited as being the brain behind the innovations – whereas in reality, he was merely a superb marketing manager and the inventive stuff was done by the almost invisible Steve Wozniak. Second, Microsoft, where Bill Gates as a supreme manager sub-contracted all the creative work for his company’s original PC operating system to freelancers, and is not known to have ever written a single line of code. Microsoft is now top-heavy with managers and has become a boring company, going nowhere. Apple may go the same way because it is being rapidly overtaken by younger companies driven (for the time being) by innovators who are not stifled by bean-counting managers and accountants.

From this, it is clear that Managers are faithful and reliable people who are only useful when they consistently follow the Rules. But Managers become dangerous when – having become disconnected from reality – they begin to set them.

The last two chief executives at Telecom proved that innovation from top management cannot be expected merely because they are paid fortunes. The greatest challenge faced by management these days is keeping a lid on public outrage (as CAA Director Graeme Harris knows, and has proved quite an expert at).

Unless they are kept under tight control, today’s Managers can be the killers of innovation, the destroyers of happiness and the bringers of inertia. The natural tendency of these people is to establish more rules to enforce and this usually involves the employment of more managers to manage the rules – and more lavish and larger premises in which to house them. Risk-averse politicians (with their less than scrupulous control of taxes) tend to be easy prey for such Managers, and are flattered when their Managers describe the kudos that will follow from being world-class when it comes to making Rules (refer to Kyoto Protocol, ICAO etc).

Perhaps the most startling example of what can happen when Managers are allowed to roam free is the European Union. It produces more than 20,000 new regulations every year, and has erected a Value Added Tax system so complex and muddled that a new industry – VAT Recovery – grew from it. Hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats and VAT recovery managers now toil ceaselessly to create… absolutely nothing.

So what, you may ask, has this to do with General Aviation?

Almost squared the circles... now all we need is to tick the boxes

Almost squared the circles… now all we need to do is tick the boxes

The short answer is that the Civil Aviation Authority, as it presents itself, seems composed largely of old-school Managers with scant or no aviation experience, who demonstrate little sign of creativity, have no discernible imagination and see their role as the enforcers of rules and the imposers of new ones to regulate. When questioned, they say: “Rules is rules.” When really pressured, they say: “Rules is ICAO rules.” When asked if flexibility is possible, they say: “Only under very restricted circumstances, and according to the rules as I am bound to apply them.” When asked very tricky questions, they put them into the Official Information Act basket, which gives them 20 working days of breathing space, according to the Rules.

The result is precisely what the finest Manager aspires to: no progress or change (or hope of it), no useful engagement, the preservation of the status quo and a stench of decay generated by mindlessly applied power that alienates the authority from its customers and precludes all hope of creating a Just Culture of transparency and fairness.

So the Dilbert Principle proves that Managers don’t actually hate us. Down at the CAA, they really don’t want to deliberately destroy general aviation, but they have an alien pattern of thought that allows no other way of operating. This is why no amount of evidence may change the myopic Manager’s one-track mind. Thinking outside the tickable box is dangerous. If he loses faith in the Rules, the Manager’s raison d’etre is threatened.

This is why CAA Managers’ lofty claims to seek a no-blame Just Culture – where they would work honestly and openly with lowly aviators – are (and must remain) simply hot air, based on an idea that can exist only in the minds of God and Utopians.