Why is Dilbert funny? Mainly because it’s true. It may be exaggerated, but for many of us Scott Adams holds up a candid mirror of reality in the workplace and it feels so ridiculous and real at the same time that it’s laugh-out-loud funny (or at least worthy of a shoulder laugh). Adams supposedly got inspiration for many of the characters in Dilbert during his time at Pacific Bell between 1986 and 1995. In fact, in an interview with the Tech, MIT’s newspaper, he said that “Alice is based on a woman I once worked with who made grown men cry in meetings. Wally is based on a guy behind my cubicle. There’s a little of me in all of them, like Dogbert.”
What I really like about Adams’ approach is that he focuses on human behavior – the universal “silly things” that people do in the workplace, as opposed to things and concepts. In his words: “You can’t make the Iran nuclear deal funny, but if you write about people having different ideas of what they agreed on, you can make that funny. . . The ‘stuff’ can change, but the patterns that people lock into don’t.”
His cartoon strips remind us how absurd and disruptive human interaction in the workplace can be, particularly related to role hierarchy. So what can we learn about some of the “truths” Adams uncovers in his work? As a strategic change expert, I naturally gravitate to his work relating to organizational change. At Root, we understand that change can be really hard and that the biggest barriers tend to be people issues – and this is clearly Adams’ observational sweet spot. Below, I’ve picked my four favorite Dilbert cartoon strips relating to organizational change, diagnosed the issues Adams is poking fun at, and provided some tips to help your organization from becoming a real-life Dilbert strip.
1. People Don’t Like Being Changed by Other People
We work with a lot of senior-level executives who passionately talk about getting their employees to embrace change, but here’s the thing – it’s hard to embrace a change that you haven’t helped create. Executives forget that they’ve spent a great deal of time studying the marketplace, exploring possibilities, and identifying the right strategy. So, for the leader, the change is compelling, intuitive and… obvious. But, for the average employee, change can often feel top-down, confusing, and inconvenient. The common refrain is that people don’t like change. But it’s not true. If people are in control of change, they’re often motivated and inspired. The correct quote should be “people don’t like being changed by other people.”
Pro tip: Enable your employees to discover how they connect and contribute to change. Don’t mandate it.
2. Organizational Change Communications Are Uninspired and Ineffective
Most organizations understand that they need to somehow tell their employees about upcoming change, but their choice of medium to articulate change can often be extremely boring and downright ineffective. Emails, talking-head films, and newsletters are, for me, some of the worst mediums you can lean on. We intuitively understand the importance of dialogue to engage people but fall back on one-way communications and didactic presentations with a cursory “Any questions?” at the end. That doesn’t work. Shocker.
Pro tip: If you want your strategy or change initiative to feel fresh, new, and different to the countless other changes on an employee’s plate, you need creative and disruptive communication methods that reflect that. Provide memorable and impactful experiences for your employees, ones that encourage interaction so your message doesn’t get lost in the noise.
3. Strategies Are Often Complex and Hard to Grasp
Sometimes strategies are unnecessarily complex. We’re in the business of helping organizations simplify the complex, and I’ve worked with clients who’ve provided us with 10+ PowerPoint decks written by three different external consultants with seven different frameworks relating to the same customer experience strategy! How can employees charged with bringing change to life translate that? And this isn’t isolated to confusion at the front line; quite often, we find that senior executives are fuzzy on the details of their own strategies. In fact, 53% of executives don’t believe in the strategies they create which is crazy to me.
Pro tip: “If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter.” – Mark Twain.
Clarity is at the heart of execution and it takes time and focus. Leadership teams need to go through a methodical process beyond strategy creation to ensure team alignment and message clarity. They need to be able to say the same words, mean the same things, and simply convey the story of the change.
4. Leaders Lack Empathy for What It Takes to Deploy Change
Generally speaking, leaders often have a very different perspective of the business than most of their employees. What we’ve found over the last few years is that the gap between leaders and frontline employees is actually getting wider, as employees believe their leaders lack awareness and empathy for what it takes to drive organizational change. From the leaders’ perspective, why things aren’t being implemented the way they imagined is often incomprehensible, and from the employee’s perspective, it’s equally incomprehensible that leadership ever thought the change they were looking for was realistic!
Pro tip: Build the change around the needs of your people by making sure you really understand the environment you’re bringing the change into. Take the time to focus on the audience charged with implementing the change and understand how they feel about the business and the problems they face. Find out what they’re curious or anxious about and how they want you to communicate with them. Then build your change engagement plan accordingly.