Supping with the devil

Scott Adams' The Dilbert Principle is ostensibly a book in which Adams makes excellent use of his and others' experience in the corporate wilderness to make us laugh. In reality, The Dilbert Principle is the best management text written in about 500 years.

If you haven’t read them already, add Scott Adams’ The Dilbert Principle and Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince to your summer reading list. The Dilbert Principle is ostensibly a book, based on Adams’ popular comic strip, in which he makes excellent use of his and others’ experience in the corporate wilderness to make us laugh. A lot. In reality The Dilbert Principle is the best management text written in about 500 years.

Predating Adams, Machiavelli had it worked out in 1512. Somehow the term “Machiavellian” has become synonymous with the evil, dark, self-serving things that the ruling classes (or, in the modern context, management) use to undermine and disadvantage the masses. Sure, the original implementations of some of Machiavelli’s ideas involved using such motivational techniques as torture and murder, but there is no denying that behind the ugliness and violence the man had an incredible understanding of human nature and how to use it to achieve a result.

Basically, power is the issue. People generally won’t support anything that they perceive will cost them power. And by power I don’t just mean votes on the board – power of one form or another is what drives people at every level of every organisation.

Receptionists and PAs are among the most powerful people in a many organisations because of their detailed understandings of the relationships that make up the business. Underestimate their influence at your peril.

The other important Machiavellian principle is that you can’t please all of the people. Get over it and get on with it. Doing the 20% of the work that achieves the 80% solution is smart. Doing 80% of the work just to keep a few people happy isn’t. Sometimes you have to make people unhappy to initiate change. Organisational inertia can often be so great that it’s not until you get some people really riled up and dissatisfied that anything can happen. Making people unhappy can be a good thing.

Maybe it’s just the mood I’m in today, but I’m thoroughly sick of being a frustrated nice guy. I think it’s time for us to get more in tune with our dark sides. We might be surprised at the result.

Speaking of the dark side, I’ve given in and got myself an iPaq. This is a pretty big step – I’ve been a dedicated Palm user for the last three or so years and held out for as long as I could. I’ve even berated other Palm users who'd defected.

My main objection to the Pocket PC was my perception that it was a miniature version of the PC rather than – like the Palm – something that was designed from the ground up to be a small, portable device with a small, portable OS and apps. Having used one for a few weeks now, I have to admit that I was thoroughly wrong. It’s extraordinarily usable and its integration with my Win2K desktop is way better than anything my Palm ever did. The iPaq has gone right to the top of my list of Cool Things That Are Even Cooler Because They Just Work.

The very best thing is that the voice recording facility allows me to make the most of my new-found Machiavellian tendencies by recording my victims’ tortured screams for posterity. Mwwwahahahahaha!

I should credit Peter Dazely, a Sydney-based change management specialist, with an assist on this one – it was him that got me thinking about the Machiavelli stuff.

Swanson is IT manager at W Stevenson & Sons in South Auckland. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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