Dilbert considered harmful? (#acguk)

I ran this conversation as a session at the UK Agile Coaches Gathering last week. It was prompted by the common experience of seeing Dilbert cartoons stuck to office walls and partitions. Here’s one of my favourites — as usual, it rings true, and the drawing, writing and setting are spot-on[1]. But wait - did Dilbert just lie to the manager? Is it OK to do that? Maybe it is, and maybe we make ourselves feel superior to the pointy-hairs by doing it.

Some other examples: Liz Keogh (who produced the gorgeous mindmap below) mentioned three teams that named themselves “Apathy”, “Lethargy” and ‘Agony” in response to the motivational posters that were dotted around their facility. And I’ve seen some of the familiar de-motivational posters from despair.com decorating the office of a director of technology, which is not what I’d expect.

Dilbert Considered Harmful - Mind Map

Social objects — and by extension the practices and behaviours we adopt — all reinforce our identity (think of the places you know whose walls are festooned with Pirelli Calendar and Page 3 pictures). The ‘Dilbert Shrine’ is a sign of cynicism and mutual disrespect that’s become institutionalized: the persistence of these objects in our environments affects the way we approach our work, our teams and our organizations. (Steve Freeman mentions the opposite — no Dilbert means that something’s repressed, or even explicitly forbidden: in my experience that’s not always the case, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some teams and companies where the opportunity for Dilbertisation just hasn’t arisen: the social objects in these organisations can be just as amusing, but are not so corrosive)

Here’s another totem that’s often stuck up on walls in agile development areas. This generated a heated discussion, with some people regarding it as a positive, others as a negative indicator. I agree with Keith Braithwaite’s assertion that having this pinned up can be a sign that the values haven’t been internalised. What’s more, having it on display can generate a very false sense of agile “worth”, stemming from the manifesto’s generality and bland framing of values. However, others in the discussion found it had been useful to align values in the early stage of an agile adoption. Let me know what you think.

Some remedies:

  • If the pictures are old, and things have improved, but it would be too much of a challenge to simply say “right, let’s tear these down”, rearranging the working space and moving a few desks can provide a good excuse for quietly losing some of the worst offenders.
  • Ask for the story. Best one-on-one, if (e.g.) you’re pairing with, or talking to someone, ask about the story behind a particular object. You might get nothing, you might get “oh, we stuck that up when … but that was a long time ago”, either way you’ve drawn something to an individual’s attention and it may mean things start getting taken down
  • Tackle at source: find ways of getting teams and managers together in less charged situations, for example over food (though if you can do this, it may be that you don’t have as serious a problem as you think)

As a coach it’s important to realise that it can be dangerous to mess with the identities of teams and individuals. What’s more, the risk of your interventions backfiring is high. Proceed with care and sensitivity.

We asked — if Dilbert et al are negative social objects, where are the positives? They do exist (but clearly not in the form of “employee of the month” and other special rewards). I like Hugh MacLeod’s Blue Monster, but I’ve seen many others - all the way down to soft toys used for integration tokens in agile teams that end up — scarily — acquiring a character and becoming part of those teams. Comment here if you have any memorable social objects in your team environment!

[1] Brits sometimes accuse those in the US of having no sense of humour, which is clearly untrue. I do wonder, though, whether it appears in concentrated form in proportionally fewer individuals on the other side of the pond…

3 Responses to “Dilbert considered harmful? (#acguk)”

  • Kevin McGuire responded:

    Dilbert expresses the common but unspoken truth much as the Seinfeld TV series did. For every social situation there is a Seinfeld episode lampooning it, and so too for corporate and Dilbert. I also love the demotivational posters. These all allow us to point at the things that are supposed to be ‘normal’, but which we feel aren’t, and laugh at them. The emphasis should be on “putting the fun back in dysfunctional”.

    That said, I’m guessing that too much Dilbert is an indicator of something festering beneath the surface. In an environment where people cannot openly express the issues, perhaps the Dilbert comic is the only safe (i.e. without recourse) avenue to vent frustration.

    As with all matters of degree, the real truth can only be discovered once you talk with people. For that reason I really liked your “Ask for the story” suggestion.

  • David responded:

    Point taken, Kevin, however the difference between Seinfeld and Dilbert is that you watch Sienfeld by choice, enjoy it, laugh at the situations and characters, and then the show’s over. The trouble with having these objects stuck on our walls is that they’re there all the time, both as silent reminders of dysfunction and as tacit reinforcers of the idea that the fault lies with the pointy-hairs, marketers, sales people and so on. Everything we’ve learned about cognition and the mind in the past couple of decades points to the deep influence of our surroundings on how we feel and act. If the only safe way to express frustration is sticking another cartoon to the wall, then it’s already for me sign that something’s very wrong.

  • Scott Duncan responded:

    Tom DeMarco, in his book Slack, discussed Dilbert, pointing out that there is no hero. Everyone contributes to the situation; no one is working to fix anything (or to leave to find a potentially better environment).

    If you miss that and think Dilbert, Wally, et al are some sort of tragic victims, then management can be blamed for everything. At least the pointy-haired boss believes what he says/does, even if we find it unacceptable. Everyone else does not.

    I certainly posted some Dilbert cartoons at one place I worked. I did alter them, putting in my name, to highlight my Dilbertesque behavior when I caught myself in it.

    Regarding posting the Manifesto, I can see both sides on this. I guess what I’d like to see are group charters, rather than just copies of the Manifesto, since the charters would be some evidence of an internalization of the values and principles. Charters would show how the organization is responding to and adopting an agile approach.

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