By Bill Youngdahl and Kannan Ramaswamy, Thunderbird Professors
Many bold new strategies hatched in executive conference rooms around the world never have a chance to gain traction. Something happens between inception and implementation loosely described as the “Dilbert Effect,” a nod to the farcical world of cartoonist Scott Adams.
In our consulting and teaching experience with Fortune Global 500 organizations, we frequently feel the pain of Dilbert empathizers trapped in their metaphorical cubicles. Lack of clarity, poor communication and insufficient resources sink some strategic initiatives. But a more fundamental problem is disconnected leadership.
Like the Pointy-haired Boss who torments Dilbert, many real-world leaders remain disconnected from the realities of strategy implementation. Despite their good intentions, these leaders often get in the way of progress — somehow limiting rather than enabling the full potential of their employees and partners.
Checking for the Dilbert Effect is not part of the official briefings we conduct with our corporate clients, but issues of strategy derailment come up in classroom discussions and interviews with people from various organizations. Many working professionals report cultures of fear and lack of support from leaders who seem to believe another layer of management can solve any problem.
We recently met one manager who sees the Pointy-haired Boss on cubicle walls as evidence of disconnected leadership. When she visits parts of the company adorned with numerous Dilbert cartoons, she knows the jokes are hitting close to home. She laughed when she told us her company could save a fortune in consultant fees if its leaders grasped the meaning of this simple visual signal.
The irony of some situations is hard to overlook. We heard of one organization that fired an employee for criticizing its new “speak your mind” campaign. Another company scrapped its simplification initiative after the process became too complex. In a third case an organization chose the name “Brighter Tomorrow” for an offshoring initiative that displaced 25 percent of the workforce.
Other examples of disconnected leadership are more subtle. Cross-functional and cross-divisional initiatives typically start with committed sponsors driven by long-term vision. But overlapping initiatives often emerge, resulting in confusion.
When everything is a priority, schedules slip and budgets swing out of control. The combined effect can be organizational paralysis and employee burnout. Go a few levels down and most employees are unaware of the strategy, let alone the supporting pillars that originated in the corporate C suite.
In an effort to understand the factors of strategy derailment, we have launched a formal study that will build on our background as global strategy consultants and educators. Our aim is simply to define the Dilbert Effect in greater detail so we can begin to understand the root causes and costs of disconnected leadership and provide insights into how leaders can overcome these dysfunctions.
We do not believe any leader wakes up in the morning and asks, “How can I become disconnected from the realities of my organization?” Something else is afoot, and we intend to define it and explore it so we can help leaders reconnect with their true missions — for the sake of Dilberts everywhere.
Take our survey: We hope you will spend 10 minutes to share your insights by participating in an anonymous online survey at http://www.initiativeleader.com. The link also contains a blog section that will host a discussion of the results.
Kannan Ramaswamy, Ph.D. is the William D. Hacker Chair Professor of Management at Thunderbird. Both professors teach extensively in Thunderbird Corporate Learning, the school’s executive education division. Bill Youngdahl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of project and operations management at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona. Follow his blog, Prosper in a Project-Driven World.