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Dilbert breaks out of his cubicle

By Simon Hooper for CNN

Dilbert: the world's favorite cubicle-bound non-entity.
Does the "Dilbert Principle" -- the idea that the worst workers will be promoted to management -- apply at your company?
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(CNN) -- It will come as no surprise to fans of perpetual office underachiever Dilbert that, prior to the success of his creation, Scott Adams spent most of his working life holed up in just the sort of cubicle inhabited by his cartoon alter-ego.

Since his first appearance in 1989, Dilbert has become part of the language of anti-management speak and an iconoclast of corporate pretensions.

The cartoon strip is now syndicated to 2000 newspapers in 65 countries, with 22 books also chronicling the career of Adams' bespectacled engineer.

Yet the California-based cartoonist didn't start drawing full-time until 1995, having spent more than 15 years working in a series of "humiliating and low paying jobs."

With an MBA to his name as well, earned part-time in the mid-1980s, Dilbert is very much the sum of Adams' experiences of office life.

"I don't think I'm ever going to run out of ideas," Adams told CNN. "The beauty of the office environment is that you put a bunch of dysfunctional employees in one room and they will find new ways to be dysfunctional that you could never imagine. I think I have an infinite well of ideas to work from."

Adams puts Dilbert's appeal down to the fact that the cartoon transforms the private angst of the disillusioned worker into a collective experience.

"Until Dilbert there were millions of people suffering in their cubicles who thought no one else could possibly be experiencing the absurdity that they were experiencing. He became the face of the cubicle dwelling employee."

Perhaps Adams' most famous contribution to office life is the "Dilbert Principle," the idea that the most ineffective workers will systematically be moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management.

Management has remained at the sharp end of Adams' wit, expressed in the character of Dilbert's "pointy-haired boss."

"He's the most soul-destroying character in the strip precisely because he doesn't know he's being evil," says Adams.

"He's actually trying to just be a boss but he's so incompetent and clueless that you don't even have anything to hate in the usual sense. It's just so frustrating it sucks the life force out of you.

"I've always said the best kind of boss would be one who died on a Thursday so you could get a three-day weekend. Short of that, I think everybody is genetically not going to like their boss because they don't like the person who's in authority."

Adams' latest project is Dilbert's Ultimate Houseexternal link, an online virtual home for his character designed with the help of suggestions from fans. While risking the disapproval of Dilbert devotees who would prefer to seem him confined to his cubicle, Adams says giving Dilbert a home allows him an opportunity to explore another side of his creation's character.

"Dilbert's an engineer and any engineer has a creative side, at least in an engineering way. If he can't express these things at work -- and you know you can't because you'll get fired if you do too much creative stuff at work -- you gotta do it somewhere. So he's going to do it at home. Every engineer you meet does the same thing. They've got some outside project that's big and is where they express all their creative stuff."

So, 15 years into his career as a cubicle-bound non-entity, has Dilbert changed the business world for the better? Adams hopes he has at least scored a small victory for office workers in their ongoing battle with middle management.

"I always wonder if somehow Dilbert has changed business and I think, maybe, in some small way, he's shown that the most ridiculous management ideas are the easiest to mock. Someone cuts out the comic and gives it to the person that suggested the idea and it becomes a little bit more obvious to them that there's some universal mockability to the idea.

"Some of the worst ideas have maybe been suppressed a little bit through Dilbert, I'd like to think."

See CNN's interview with Scott Adams in the next Global Office. For show times click here.

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