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How to escape the Dilbert Zone February 19, 2013

Posted by thefieldgeneral in funny, Leadership, Project Management.
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When someone attempts to apply a good idea into the vast reaches of a large corporation, strange pockets of policy tend to emerge. The Dilbert comics are largely about these misfit policies. Try as we might, none of us is immune to this effect. What do you do when you find yourself in the “Dilbert Zone”?

Dilbert Zone

As my leaders and I tried to apply a new corporate policy to our organization, one of them remarked, “I feel like I’m in a Dilbert comic.” The problem was the policy we were trying to implement had been corporately mandated, but it just didn’t fit our group well.

When you discover that you are in the “Dilbert Zone” I see five possible options:

1. Fight the Power

Refuse to follow the policy or ignore it.
This technique can work in some circumstances. If you have a powerful executive on your side who either disagrees with the policy or is willing to fight it for you, you have a shot. If the executive leadership doesn’t care about the policy, there may be no teeth in it. If you personally are willing to spend massive political capital, you might stave it off.
I don’t recommend this approach. All three situations have weaknesses: your friendly executive leaves or is fired; the executive leadership changes their mind and decides they do care; a single person with more influence than you decides to put their two cents in. The only gain in this approach is slowing the policy’s advance. Short of policy change, you will have to fight this battle over and over again till you lose or become CEO.
I took this stance for a time on a financial policy I felt had questionable ethics. I fought the battle a half dozen times before I was given a clear explanation of the corporate decision by those who were in a better position to understand it.

2. Sneak around the Power

Pretend to follow the policy, but don’t. Do the minimal.
Sometimes this is an approach to take, but only when you can maintain your integrity. Some policies are written with large holes in them intentionally, so that those parts of the organization which should slip through the cracks do. Be careful here though, you are putting your integrity on the line. If there is any ethical question, it’s not worth it. Leaders and project managers can only be effective if they are trustworthy. I wouldn’t generally recommend this approach except in special cases.
I have used this as well. For years our organization had a very strict “use it or lose it” policy on days off. This created problems for employees who were prevented from taking days off due to corporate needs. We “worked around” the policy by allowing employees to keep a couple days off the books to be used early the next year, if company needs prevented them from taking their time.

3. Bow to the Power

Don’t ask me why, just do it!
Sometimes you just don’t have an option. . The problem with this approach is that the manager comes off looking either stupid or powerless. It tends to have a temporary negative impact on employee or team morale. The advantage of this approach is it is often where we end up anyway. The team can confront the emotional impact and move past it.
I’ve used this several times. The problem is that Dilbert Zone policies tend to have a cumulative effect, slowly desensitizing the employee to what is worthwhile. I have seen organizations where the project managers have been so tied up in mindless red tape that their ability to actually shepherd  projects successfully was deadened. Even after the red tape was removed, the PMs retained their lack of project focus.

4. Attempt a Compromise with the Power

If you have access to the decision maker who required the policy or the person who is implementing the policy, you may be able to find an agreeable compromise.
This can be a great solution. Often the difference between good policy and bad is in the implementation. The problem is, of course, that if the contact you have changes, or changes their mind, you may find yourself right back where you started.
A good example of this was a recent EPMO Audit we went through. In our audits, project documents  are generally deposited in a sub folder labeled for the stage of the project. (Initiating, Planning, ect…) We talked to the EPMO because for our smallest projects we only had 4 documents required. They went into 3 different folders. The folder structure which helps auditors find a document when they are looking through dozens of docs, was excessive in our case. Our compromise here was a single folder, where all 4 docs would go.

5. Find a way to make the policy benefit your group

I think this is the best option. The corporation’s job is  not to make policy fit into your projects. In a way, they don’t care about your projects. They don’t know enough or have the right perspective to make the policy help you. Generally the policies have broad goals such as consistency or quality. It is up to us as managers and project managers to find ways to make corporate policy benefit us.
I have 2 examples. In the first example, the organization had essentially Bowed to the Power. Policy was treated as check boxes required to get to the other end of projects. Executives saw EMPO policy as an annoyance and regarded project managers primarily as those who kept that annoyance away. What we did was find ways to have EPMO policy benefit the projects, the project managers, and the executives. This helped morale and made the policies something more than they were.
The second example is with the organization I lead now. EPMO has delivered more requirements. We have so far leveraged this change into giving us greater visibility into activities across the base. We are hoping to find ways to leverage the new documents to improve our customer facing activities and leadership visibility. That is much better than another useless requirement.
What do you think is the best way to deal with the Dilbert Zone?

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1. thefieldgeneral - February 19, 2013

Please leave a comment! I love to hear from you.

thefieldgeneral


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