The Dilbert Principle

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Image created with Midjourney. Image prompt: 2d minimal style illustration of an office space where one employee is awkwardly elevated on a platform, signifying his 'promotion', while his colleagues continue their work below, looking puzzled

Companies tend to systematically promote incompetent employees to management to get them out of the workflow.

Scott Adams

"Companies tend to systematically promote incompetent employees to management to get them out of the workflow." - Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, first explained this principle in a 1995 Wall Street Journal article and expanded upon it in his 1996 business book, The Dilbert Principle1.

In the realm of software development, the Dilbert Principle can surface in peculiar ways. For instance, a brilliant coder who lacks management skills could get promoted to a leadership position, resulting in decreased productivity for the entire team. Let's delve deeper into this concept by examining three examples and exploring how it connects to creating digital software products.

Example 1: Promoting the Incompetent Programmer

In this scenario, let's consider a software developer who's notorious for writing convoluted, hard-to-maintain code. Instead of enhancing their coding skills or helping them understand the importance of clean code, the company promotes them to a managerial role. The hope is that they'll cause less harm in a position that doesn't involve direct contribution to the codebase. However, this can backfire as the promoted developer might lack the required soft skills and vision to effectively manage a team, thereby creating a dysfunctional work environment.

Example 2: The Uncommunicative Project Manager

Imagine a project manager who's poor at communicating and coordinating between different stakeholders. If promoted to a higher management role, their lack of communication skills could lead to misunderstandings on a larger scale, resulting in project delays, budget overruns, and overall discord within the team.

Example 3: The Non-Technical Tech Lead

An individual with limited technical understanding might be promoted to a tech lead position due to their tenure within the company or other non-technical merits. While they might excel in other areas, their lack of technical proficiency could lead to unrealistic deadlines, inappropriate technology choices, and a lack of understanding about the challenges their team faces, thereby hampering the product's development.

The Connection to Digital Software Products

Software products are born from the collective effort of diverse teams. Effective management is crucial to steer these efforts towards a common goal. If individuals lacking in necessary skills are promoted to key positions (as per the Dilbert Principle), it can lead to a host of problems: miscommunication, poor decision-making, decreased morale, and ultimately, a subpar software product.

The Dilbert Principle serves as a cautionary tale against promoting employees for the wrong reasons. To build successful digital products, it's imperative to ensure that the people in leadership roles are equipped with the right blend of technical and managerial skills. Rather than moving problem employees out of the workflow, companies should focus on training, mentoring, and fostering an environment that promotes continuous learning and improvement.

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