Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The Peter Principle

Everybody knows The Peter Principle as "people get promoted to their level of incompetence."

Unfortunately, that's wrong.

The Peter Principle is the title of a book published in 1969, by Dr Laurence J Peter and Raymond Hull.  Dr Peter did the research, Hull ghost wrote book.  I recently picked up a copy from The Book Thing free store in Baltimore, that was printed in 1970.  The front cover states:
In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.
Unfortunately, that's not really the principle, either.

The problem is this:  These concepts are introduced and explained on page seven of the book, but the book is so poorly written, that even though it was a run-away best seller, no one actually read it.  They bought it, talked about it at cocktail parties (remember... this was 1970) but they didn't actually read it.  They read the cover and mutually agreed with each other's lies of understanding. 

Its kind of like going to Las Vegas: no one want to admit they are the only person in the world who didn't get their room "comp'd", so they lie.  Thus the of "the Las Vegas comp" is a self perpetuating fable.

In reality, The Peter Principle is about the behavior of human systems, which Dr Peter calls "a new science, hierarchiology, the study of hierarchies," and the level of incompetence thing is one small part of the pie.

Have I finished the book?  No, but I am struggling through the text.  At this point its a challenge.  I shall not be defeated by a small tome of yellowed pages!

And what wonders been gleaned from my pain and suffering?  Thus far, only that Dr Peter is an elitist pig.  A slightly observant and insightful elitist pig, but a pig none the less.  My evidence?  From page 44:
[He] managed, by hard study, to master a foreign language.  It is quite possible that he would have to fill one or more posts in the company's overseas sales organization before being brought home and promoted to his final position of incompetence as sales manager.  Study created a detour in [his] hierarchal flight plan.
In other words, be a good drone and do what I tell you.  You will ultimately fail in life and efforts at self improvement will only delay the inevitable.

The Silicon Valley people have a new saying: "Fail fast.  Fail cheap."  (I hate Silicon Valley people.)  The logic is that if you are going to fail, it is better to do it sooner than later.  This use to be called "cutting your losses."  For Silicon Valley people, its about recognizing failure on the horizon, accepting that you have over-reached, and moving on to your next meal ticket.  But this is not what Dr Peter is proposing. 

For Dr Peter, it is about recognizing that you will fail, giving up on any chance of enjoying what you're doing, and moving as quickly as possible to the job that you will inevitably hate, where you will spend the rest of your life being ineffective, and suffer the scorn of your co-workers.

Wow.  I just realized that not only is this book poorly written, but its depressing, too.  No wonder nobody read it.