Doing as Dilbert says and does Publishing: With a wildly popular book and comic strip, Scott Adams is working hard on his career. But not too, too hard.

June 12, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

We had wanted to check in with Scott Adams by e-mail. It turns out this demonstrated all the creativity and innovation of a boss in his comic strip, "Dilbert." Everyone wants to interview Adams by e-mail, especially now that his latest book, "The Dilbert Principle" is on the nonfiction best-seller list, where it has remained now for almost two months. (Not to be confused with "Still Pumped from Using the Mouse," a paperback best-seller of Dilbert cartoons.)

Besides, Adams said, he figured out that reporters who interviewed him by e-mail were making him do their job, which directly violates a key tenet of "The Dilbert Principle" -- "Avoidance of work [is] in the best interest of the company and something to be proud of."

So we settled on a long-distance call, on company time, which is consistent with yet another Dilbert tenet -- "Virtual Hourly Compensation," a theory that suggests your total compensation package includes office supplies and unlimited long distance.

Except we were working. Honest.

Q: Three years ago, you put your e-mail address on "Dilbert," which was then in 200 papers. Today it's in almost 1,000. How many messages did you get today?

A: I think we're pushing 500. A typical day is about 300, but TC couldn't get through them all yesterday.

Do you ever regret publishing your address?

No, because almost everything good that's happened to me I think you can trace back to that simple inspiration. It really was the spark. There were a lot of things that were hugely important after that, you can point to a dozen other things, but if you go back to the big bang, that was the actual impetus.

Did you consult a single reference book (except perhaps a dictionary) while writing "The Dilbert Principle"?

I don't remember looking at a dictionary. I have spell-check, and dammit, that's what the editors are for.

What are the implications of the Dilbert Principle? ("The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage -- management.")

It's part of an overall problem that the world has become so complicated that even smart people are bluffing. It used to be only dumb people had to bluff. Now smart people have to do it.

Even if you take someone who used to know what they did, wait a year and they no longer know. The people who are making the decisions never have enough information to make the right decisions. Everyone comes out looking absurd because they don't have the tools they need. If all you have is a woodchuck, everything looks like a lawn.

Your statistics are all made up, the studies are all made up, the outlook, if taken seriously, is absolutely dismal. That said, can "The Dilbert Principle" be used in the same way as, say, Tom Peters' "In Search of Excellence?"

There's an important parallel, which is: I'd like to sell as many (books) as he did.

I do get reports from all over of CEOs who are buying the book and giving it to their managers. More often, lower-level managers are buying it and giving it to their CEOs. I have this theory that anything that can be easily mocked is bound to fail and you might as well find out right away. I cut through the middle man: Give them my book and they've got a good idea what you're mocking.

But if "The Dilbert Principle" is correct, isn't the chapter "Pretending to Work," alerting otherwise clueless managers to all the tricks of the trade?

You're giving them way too much credit. You're making the assumption they can take information, process it and use it. On my planet, there's not much evidence to support that theory.

OK, but what about the part about making sure you always arrive before your boss and leave after he or she departs? Did you really have to give that one up?

I can honestly say if I were still working my day job I could not have written that.

So it's true what my boss thinks I'm doing is more important than what I am doing?

Absolutely. What you actually do has no bearing whatsoever on your salary or your happiness. What he thinks you did does.

And there's a section about the employee who learns how to bitch endlessly. I had a co-worker who was the expert in that. Whatever topic you discussed, he said, 'Oh man, working so hard.' I never saw anybody do less work in my life and talk more about it. And it works.

You told an interviewer earlier this year that you were using affirmations to envision your book on the New York Times best-seller list. Lo and behold, there it is. What's your current affirmation?

I didn't realize I gave that away. I'm working on the Pulitzer Prize now. I'm not kidding. I'm totally serious. If you look in hindsight, yeah, he made the New York Times, if you knew what I was doing when I started doing this affirmation, it was pretty surprising. The fact that it's impossible by any rational definition doesn't matter.

Are you working on any other affirmations?

I'd rather not say.

Scott Adams, the next president of the United States.

That's a crappy job. I'd rather be a benevolent dictator. Nothing could be more efficient than a benevolent dictator. I think the greatest system would be a dictator, but every two weeks the entire electorate can vote one of two ways. One, the dictator can have all the power, or two, the dictator can be executed immediately. Then, guess what, you're pretty darn benevolent. It might take a while for people to catch on. The first dictators wouldn't get it. But the beauty is, you've got 6 billion people so you're not going to run out.

Is Dilbert's tie a phallic symbol?

What do you think? I've read it's merely askew.

Well, askew is one of those words you should use whenever you get a chance. Askew and athwart.

Pub Date: 6/12/96

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