Lessons in Systems Thinking from the Creator of Dilbert

“Losers have goals. Winners have systems.”

-Scott Adams, Creator of Dilbert

Scott Adams, in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, compares and contrasts systems thinking with the goal oriented approach to success. Scott credits his systems thinking approach for the success he’s realized today. To compare and contrast systems vs. goals, Adam’s used the following definitions:

System: Something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run (Source)

Goal: A specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future (Source)

Scott describes goal oriented people as living in a perpetual state of failure. In the event they achieve their goal, after a brief celebration goal oriented people will realize they have lost the thing that gave them purpose. In contrast, systems people are successful every time they execute their system. An example of Scott’s system at work is his blogging efforts which as Scott puts it “the blogging seemed to double my workload while promising a 5% higher income that didn’t make a real difference” (Source). Scott’s blogging provided him the opportunity to hone is writing and experiment with different voices and eventually led to guest articles in the Wall Street Journal and dozens of business opportunities (Source).

Scott shares a more humors example of systems oriented success with Tim Ferriss in a podcast interview. Scott contrasts his approach to seeking love in high school which showering a select co-ed with affection and admiration (goal oriented approach) while Scott’s friend flittered and dated as many co-eds as possible acquiring valuable social skills along the way (systems approach).  Though humors, this example clearly illustrates the point Scott is attempting to make that a system executed regularly will lead to “success” though the end result may be difficult to impossible to visualize initially.

Other examples of Scott’s systems approach to happiness:

Diversification as a tool for Stress Management: Scott applies to the same logic as why one should diversify their portfolio (i.e. not keeping all eggs in one basket). Scott describes Dilbert’s success as a form of diversifying the number of bosses he has (1,000’s of newspapers) preventing any fear of losing his “job”.

Career Advice: Become very good at two or more things and combine those skills to create something that is both rare and valuable. In Scott’s case he combined his artistic ability (above average) with his wit and humor (also above average) to create Dilbert.


Donald Trump, Control Charts, & Lesson’s in Psychology from my Favorite Cartoonist

Note: The Illusion of Management is not a political blog; however, those struggling to create  change within their organizations and build a culture of responsible data analysis can learn a tremendous amount from Scott’s new book. Thus, I explore the concepts of Adams’ book and how they pertain to the Illusion of Management.

Win Bigly is Dilbert cartoonist (and trained hypnotist), Scott Adams, newest book where he reviews his prediction that Donald Trump would win the 2016 election from the viewpoint of Trump using the techniques of what Adam’s describes as a Master Persuader. Other examples of Master Persuaders are Steve Jobs and Tony Robbins.  Adams walks readers through his explanation of why facts don’t matter, tactics of Master Persuader’s, and explores the psychological concepts of confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance through the lens of the 2016 election. Adams explains a Master Persuader is an individual who recognizes people are irrational 90% of the time (recall behavioral finance advocates from the last post argued innate irrationality invalidated the efficient market hypothesis) and uses this observation, along with confirmation bias to “pace and lead” the victims subjects. Adams draws  upon examples such as Trumps extreme immigration stance early during the Republican primaries as a way to match his supporters on an emotional level and then lead  them later in the race as he transitions to a less extreme position. Adams also notes Trumps ridiculous behavior and visualizations such as the infamous “Wall” are a tool to prompt discussion which elevates the issue in importance as a result of the “energy” consumed from the ensuing discussions and ridicule. Enlightened individuals such as Illusion of Management readers have likely seen this tactic deployed in the office as a skilled individual can successfully “spin up” a seemingly benign issue and suck the life out of an organization.

Persuasion Tip #4: The things that you think about the most will irrationally rise in importance in your mind.

Another popular tactic outlined by Adams is the High Ground Maneuver where a persuader elevates the discussion to a level where everyone agrees. Adams example is Steve Jobs’ handling of “Antennae gate”  where Jobs famously stated all smart phones have problems  in response to issues with the iPhone 4. In the corporate world you’ve likely heard ambiguous statements such as  “We need to focus on quality” or “create a quality mindset”(Note: Strategic Ambiguity is also a tool of the Master Persuader). Inevitably if the High Ground Maneuver goes unchecked the organization will likely kick of projects such as standard work deployment projects where the resulting  work instructions are pulled out for external audits and collect dust for the other 360 days a year.

Persuasion Tip #13: Use the High Ground Maneuver to frame yourself as the wise adult in the room. It forces others to join you or be framed as the small thinkers.

Though Win Bigly aids readers in identifying tactics of the Master Persuader, the continued discussion of confirmation bias is vital for ensuring meaningful performance improvement. From the perspective of the Illusion of Management, confirmation bias is crucial in perpetuating an environment where “noise” in performance data can be translated into “evidence” of progress or poor performance based on the bias of the observer. Adams uses evolution to explain this as understanding reality isn’t essential for people to live long enough to procreate. Evolution & confirmation bias also explains why people are skilled at pattern recognition enabling humans to circumnavigate the globe with the stars; however, prompts us to see patters where information is purely random (Source). The most fundamental tool in the war against confirmation bias & motivated persuaders is the control chart. Control charts can be used with upper and lower control limits which bound individual results within a range which is considered “noise” or common cause variation. Other rules such as those developed by Western Electric (link) can be used further enable filtering of signal from noise. Armed with tools such as control charts and the lessons of Master Persuaders outlined by Adams’ provide enlightened and motivated individuals with a fighting chance against the Illusion of Management.

Persuasion Tip #7: Its easy to fit completely different explanations to the observed facts. Don’t trust any interpretation of reality that isn’t able to predict.

Driving Out Fear: The Hidden Risk

W. Edward Deming was an American statistician, management consultant, and professor credited  with influencing the Toyota Production System (TPS) and lean manufacturing (subjects which will be explored on this blog at some point). Along with the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle and advocacy for statistical quality control (e.g. control charts), Deming developed his 14 key management principles. In this post we will explore #8, “Drive out Fear”.


“Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company”

– W.Edward Deming

I found myself pondering this concept most recently while reading “A Random Walk Down Wall Street” by B.G. Malkiel.  A book first published ~40 years ago which explores the efficient market hypothesis, wisdom or lack thereof of investment gurus, and the madness of crowds in great detail.  In his book, Malkiel discussed the work of Kahnemann & Tversky (critics of the efficient market hypothesis) whose behavioral experiments discovered that people are extremely loss averse and in situations where loss was assured, individuals exhibit risk-seeking behavior. One such example is provided below:

Consider the below options for yourself:

Option 1: Guaranteed loss of $750

Option 2: 75% chance of a $1000 loss & 25% change of no loss

When faced with the two options provided above, Kahnemann & Tversky found that  90% of subjects selected option #2, despite the fact that the expected value of both decisions is the same. How could this concept apply to organizations?

In organizations where individuals are held “accountable”, often a euphemism for a perform or “you’re fired” management philosophy, individuals are put in situations where loss may be assured. Based on the work of Kahnemann & Tversky it is the tendency of the vast majority of people to exhibit risk seeking behavior. In the world of business this may result in shipment of nonconforming product, hiding injuries, violation of environmental laws & policies, etc.

In my own experience I’ve witnessed individuals “manipulating” on-time delivery numbers, supervisors aborting lengthy processes early to meet delivery commitments,  and overriding safety features to reduce cycle times. One organization had a philosophy uttered jokingly by employees on the production floor, “Ship it! We’ll worry about it when it comes back”. As a young engineer I found myself chastising the individuals while seemingly oblivious to the fact that the behavior was human nature and a response to the management system.

For years, quality professionals have been focused on developing detailed “processes”  to the point of annoying everyone within the organization. The switch of ISO 9001(Quality Management System used across many countries & industries as the minimum requirements of a quality management system) from process thinking to risk based thinking has quality professionals around the world preparing SIPOC’s (Supplier-Input-Process-Output-Customer) diagrams and performing FMEA (failure modes and effects analysis) activities throughout their organizations in an attempt to map out organizational risk. I find myself wondering how we eliminate the greatest risk, FEAR in our organizations?


“Well, 99% of things done in the world good or bad is to pay a mortgage”

-Nick Naylor, Thank You for Smoking


W. Edward Deming: https://asq.org/about-asq/honorary-members/deming

14 Points for Total Quality Management: http://asq.org/learn-about-quality/total-quality-management/overview/deming-points.html

“A Random Walk Down Wall Street”: https://www.amazon.com/Random-Walk-Down-Wall-Street/dp/0393330338

ISO 9000: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ISO_9000

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