Boundary, n.Â In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of another. – Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary.
“Dilbert” has been verbed.
We’re starting to hear executives say, “Let’s not Dilbert this,” when debating some question of corporate policy or direction.
Progress is where you find it, I guess.
When Scott Adams invented Dilbert he worked at Pacific Bell. Pacific Bell, like most regulated monopolies, has little incentive to improve efficiency. When a utility makes a rate case to a public utilities commission (PUC), it demonstrates the cost of providing a service. Once the cost has been demonstrated, the price is almost a given. Since PUCs understand margins, they tend to allow pricing that delivers an acceptable margin percentage.
Which means regulated monopolies have an incentive to increase costs, since whatever the margin, higher costs will lead to more profits rather than less.
Regulated monopolies don’t generally find themselves squeezed for funds. You might think this would lead to higher salaries, or more pleasant working conditions, or the ability to “do things right” instead of having to make hard choices.
You’d be wrong.
Over-funded organizations act more like ecosystems than organisms. You’ve heard the phrase “it’s a jungle out there”? A jungle is an ecosystem.
An ecosystem is a stable organization composed of independent organisms, each focused on its own purposes. These individual organisms see to it that free resources find a use (that is, there are no unfilled niches). And as an ecosystem become more stable over time, species diversity increases and the flow of nutrients and energy within it becomes increasingly complex.
A business that acts as an ecosystem is unhealthy, and the symptoms are easy to spot. The company as a whole has no focus. Competitive urges are focused internally — department heads vie with each other for projects or funding. Departmental funding comes from sources within the ecosystem, and internal consumers define the value of most corporate processes — that is, internal economics, often built around a system of charge-backs, drive most activity.
Meanwhile, employees say, “I’m your customer” and “You’re my customer” to each other and mean it.
In companies like this, influence and power come from getting along — from political dexterity. Many employees will, in fact, find it literally impossible to connect their work to the creation of customer value.
And of course, the cost of sales is viewed as an overhead expense … hence the popular financial statistic “SG&A” — Sales, General, and Administrative expense. Sales and Marketing are largely disconnected from the purpose of the business, which is generating shareholder value, not increasing marketshare.
Compare all of this to the most successful business in the world, Microsoft. What complaints do you hear about Microsoft? Most boil down to it engaging in predatory business practices.
A predator is an organism. It has its own purposes, which it achieves through organized, focused activity. It understands that if it doesn’t succeed in achieving its goals, it won’t eat.
Microsoft creates lots of shareholder value but I’d bet you’d have a hard time finding a Microsoft employee who worries about it. Microsoft exists to dominate markets — to be a successful predator, taking food away from its competitors.
If you work in a company that acts as an ecosystem you have some hard choices to make. Don’t even try to change the company. You’ll just alienate the rest of the executive team. Only the CEO has any chance at all to change a company like this, and even for a CEO the road to recovery is a hard one.
You can, however, keep your own house in order. Cultivate executives who deal with external customers. Constantly ask how proposed projects will lead to increased competitiveness or customer value. Focus IS on the company’s purpose as best you can.
Or, you can leave to work for a predator.