Lean Media example: Scott Adams grows Dilbert

By | March 14, 2016

Dilbert sample from Dilbert.comOver the weekend, I listened to Tim Ferriss interview Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoon strip. Before hearing the interview, I knew about Dilbert. It’s a classic. Everyone who has worked in an office can appreciate Adams’ relentless satire of office life. But I knew very little about the history of the strip, or Adams’ own history. As I listened to his story, I realized that Dilbert is a great example of Lean Media in action.

I am not going to describe the entire podcast or the whole history of Dilbert, but the takeaways that relate to Lean Media include:

  • Reducing waste: This could also be framed as “leveraging resources.” It related to the fact that Adams continued to work in a giant telecom company’s innovation unit long after Dilbert had become successful and he could have worked on the cartoon strip full-time. Why stay so close to office culture which he so relentless satirized ? It wasn’t only to ensure his media business was stable and primed for growth (he constantly refers to Dilbert as a “business” as opposed to “art” or “creative passion”). He wanted to draw inspiration and ideas from the environment he was writing about, namely, the office.
  • Early prototype feedback. Adams would prototype characters on a whiteboard in his office (I believe at PacBell) and ask for feedback from his coworkers. The name “Dilbert” actually comes from a “Name the Nerd” contest Adams held on a whiteboard. His boss came up with the idea!
  • Soft launch feedback. After Dilbert had entered syndication, but before it got really big, he began to include his email address on one of the panels. He received thousands of messages from fans who otherwise would have never contacted him with their opinions. Based on that feedback, he began to change certain aspects of the series.

The feedback from his early prototype and soft launch readers were critical to the development of Dilbert. Here are just a few changes that resulted:

  • The settings of the strip. Early in the series, before the email address was posted, Dilbert spent much of his time at home or elsewhere (stores, etc.) Afterwards, fans emailed to say they liked it when he was in the office. Adams began to work office settings into the strip on a more frequent basis.
  • Characters. The character names were developed from feedback. Readers liked the cat (and even gave it a name — “Catbert”) and Adams decided to give it a bigger role … as the head of HR (in the interview, he said that it was perfect because cats don’t care what you think of them and like to “play with you”).

As I was listening to the interview, I had another thought about the Lean Media framework. Right now, the final stage in the Lean Media flowchart is “launch.” This is the point in venture where you have iterated the media product based on feedback and it’s ready for a big, splashy launch. But some products continue to evolve after launch. Dilbert, The Simpsons, Minecraft, and The Huffington Post are a few examples. Other media are less likely to change after launch, such as Led Zeppelin I or a blockbuster movie.

Should I create two flowcharts for the two different types of media (evolving vs. static)? Or can the existing flowchart work?

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