Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Scott Adams says he took the General Management Admissions Test (GMAT) only to impress a girlfriend, but ended up with a place at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

So it happened that the creator of Dilbert, the cartoon chronicle of office life, spent three years in the mid-1980s studying part-time for an MBA.

What happened to the girl? “Apparently my scores weren’t good enough,” he says.

Dilbert fans will not be surprised to learn that its progenitor has an MBA. The strip is so painfully well-observed that it could only have been authored by a corporate insider.

More surprising is Mr Adams’ genuine enthusiasm for the MBA experience. The deadpan humour and cynicism of Dilbert melts away as he recalls: “To be honest, I went into the MBA thinking it was a piece of paper that might further my career. It turned out to be about the most useful thing I’ve ever done.” In those days, Mr Adams was just another twenty-something cublicle dweller.

The first Dilbert strip was not published until 1989, three years after he’d finished his MBA. He didn’t give up his day job for full-time on cartooning until 1995 and only then after being “downsized” from Pacific Bell, the regional telephone company.

From the start, however, Mr Adams used his business savvy to build the Dilbert franchise. In 1993, for example, he became the first synidicated cartoonist to included his email address in his comic strip. “I needed a direct channel of communication with my customers. It seemed kinda obvious,” he says.

Customer feedback was used to refine the product. Thus Catbert, the feline human resources director at Dilbert’s company, started with one cameo appearance but returned again and again by popular demand.

The latest example of customer/cartoonist collaboration is the Dilbert’s Ultimate House project, a 3-D computer simulation based on suggestions for the “perfect” home submitted by 3,000 visitors to Dilbert.com.

The result is “an energy-efficient, eco-friendly and functional home for the modern dweller” that will be open for virtual tours. Unusual architectural features include a special bathroom for cats, to obviate the need for keeping kitty litter in the en suite. This is all good, clean fun. But there are also sound business principles at work. Such direct collaboration between producers and customers is a prime example of what strategy wonks call “co-creation of value” building loyalty by giving customers direct input into the enterprise.

This is not to say that customer-driven cartooning is infallable. Mr Adams’ last book, Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel, published in 2002, sold less well than predecessors such as The Dilbert Principle and Dogbert’s Top Secret Management Handbook.

A weasel, in Dilbert-speak, is someone who “tries to get away with something”. The central message of the book is that everyone in business engages in weasel-like activity. Weasels make the world go round.

So what went wrong? “I’ve learned that you can sell a lot of books if you tell people what they are already thinking. It turns out that not that many people want to be told they are weasels.” Overall, however, keeping close to customers and operating with business savvy has helped turn Dilbert into a multi-million dollar enterprise engaged in everything from web publishing to merchandising.

Says Mr Adams: “An MBA teaches you to look at everything in terms of cash flow. It is the judo of money.” Even an interview with the FT is an exercise in return-on- investment: the opportunity cost of chatting with a journalist versus the potential benefit of free publicity.

“I’m a very calculating person,” he adds, tongue only partially in cheek. One downside of evening and weekend MBA programmes is that students typically don’t have much time to bond with classmates.

Mr Adams’ experience with the Haas School’s part-time programme bears this out. He gained neither lifelong friends nor business associates.

“Everyone in the class had full-time lives outside the MBA. About one-third of them had kids,” he recalls.

“If you are getting home from class at 10.30 at night it doesn’t leave you with a lot of spare time.”

Not that the cartoonist regards the relative lack of bonding as a drawback. He enthuses about his MBA education with an earnestness that would make Dilbert blush. But then the boyish 47-year-old is a learning enthusiast. Dilbert’s Ultimate House has been an excuse to learn about everything from construction technique to computer animation.

Business school was followed by courses ranging from hypnosis to a Dale Carnegie course in public speaking.

The latter is useful on the celebrity speaker circuit, where Mr Adams is a star turn. The former helped him write God’s Debris, a thought experiment-cum-science fiction novel published in 2001.

A sequel, The Religion War, was published last month. “I used hypnosis techniques in the writing of both books,” he explains. “That’s why people tend to experience either euphoria or deep anger, often amnesia, when they read God’s Debris.” And the customer feedback? “Hundreds of people e-mailed me to say it was the best book they’d ever read and almost as many were scathing including a few who read the entire book before returning it to the bookstore for a refund. “As an author, when you get that kind of reaction, it’s hard to resist doing it again.”

Get alerts on Business education when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.