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Dilbert: Corporate America's Pet Gadfly

Comic-strip cutup Dilbert is a hit with the execs he lampoons

Dilbert: Corporate America's Pet Gadfly

Comic-strip cutup Dilbert is a hit with the execs he lampoons

There's a fox in the corporate henhouse, and his name is Dilbert. The relentlessly mediocre comic-strip engineer, cult hero to millions of American workers, has insinuated himself into the corner office. Bespectacled and crudely drawn, railing against executives as "galactic idiots," Dilbert has nonetheless achieved star status at management seminars. Consultant gurus speak of his wisdom, and CEOs hang him on the wall.

This week, artist Scott Adams' latest offering, The Dilbert Principle, lands at the top spot of BUSINESS WEEK's best-seller list, a roster customarily dominated by such titles as The Death of Competition. It's part comic collection, part management-book parody, and all antiboss. The definitive Dilbert principle: "The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage--management."

Bizarrely, the message is resonating with managers in high places. The Dilbert Principle, says Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, director of Emory University's CEO College, "is being talked about more than any single management book right now." Adams recently spoke to an executive gathering at a company he won't identify where all 80 participants already had the book--a gift from their CEO. William D. George Jr., CEO of S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., the household-products company, keeps in his office a Dilbert strip parodying companies that offer empty cliches about employees being their most valuable assets. "We're all bombarded by the latest business fads," George says. "Dilbert seems to relate to the real world."

Executives say Dilbert provides an escape valve--even for the targets of his criticism. And like all good humor, the strip makes serious criticism more palatable. "There's more truth in one volume of Dilbert than there is in 10 volumes of Harvard business school case studies," says Michael Hammer, author of the forthcoming Beyond Reengineering: How One 21st Century Corporation Will Change Our Work & Our Lives. The autographed original Dilbert strips that mock reengineering hang in his Boston office. In one, Dilbert's boss proclaims: "Everybody's doing it. We'd better jump under the bandwagon before the train leaves the station."

With about 250,000 copies in print, The Dilbert Principle is Adams' fastest-selling book. It mixes cartoon strips with Adams' wry observations and E-mail he has received from fans detailing ridiculous company policies. "No matter how absurd I try to make the comic strip," Adams writes in the introduction, "I can't stay ahead of what people are experiencing in the workplace."

Corporate America's co-opting of the line-drawn technogeek began at his birthplace, Pacific Telesis Group in San Francisco, where Adams worked for nine years, drawing the strip in his free time, until quitting last year. David W. Dorman, the president of subsidiary Pacific Bell, still keeps an autographed Dilbert strip in his office. Meanwhile, PacTel pays rights fees to reprint strips in its company newsletter and uses Dilbert to introduce a video on--what else?--reengineering.

SELLING ABUSE. Dilbert also makes regular appearances in an AlliedSignal Inc. internal newsletter. In a recent strip, the boss announced a new name for Dilbert's division (above). "Dilbert is making fun of the companies where nothing really changes except the slogans," says spokesman Mark E. Greenberg. Of course, Greenberg adds, stagnation doesn't happen at his company.

And that may be the secret of the strip's success. "Everybody thinks it's making fun of somebody else," Adams says. Originally, it was. Earlier strips focused en Dilbert's inability to get a date and often depicted his spherical pet, Dogbert, outwitting him. But in recent years Adams has dedicated himself to skewering Dilbert's boss and pillorying mission statements and quality teams.

Needless to say, the abuse sells. Dilbert appears in more than 1,000 newspapers, has sold more than 1 million books, and adorns a Web site that receives 1.6 million hits a day. "Mocking management is my strength," says Adams. And, strange as it may seem, management kinda likes it.