On Matters That Matter

The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones

Dr Peter’s Classic Elucidates Incompetence

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“Late at night, a drunk staggers across Red Square in front of the Kremlin, singing at the top of his voice, ‘Brezhnev is an idiot! Brezhnev is an idiot!’ Immediately, several KGB agents close in on him and haul him off to jail. The following morning he appears before the judge, who declares his sentence, ‘Twenty years and two days of hard labour in Siberia.’ The man cries out in disbelief, ‘Twenty years and two days! But why? I was only drunk in public.’ And the judge responds, ‘Two days are for being drunk in public. Twenty years for betraying a state secret.’”

The DNA newspaper in July and August carried a couple of columns with The Peter Principle as the overarching theme. The one in July was about an antidote to the principle and the piece in August applied the principle to explore if PM Manmohan Singh had found his level of incompetence at Sharm el-Sheikh—both done by R. Jagannathan.

The 1969 book The Peter Principle and the phrase it defined are considered comedic-yet-classic cornerstones of organisational thought. The Peter Principle states that ‘in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.’ Dr Laurence J. Peter compiled his data for the founding and development of the salutary science of ‘Hierarchiology’. Dr Peter concluded that for every job that existed in the world there was someone, somewhere, who could not do it. Given sufficient time and enough promotions he would get that job! So there is a good enough chance that the drunk staggering around was probably telling the truth.

The other DNA piece refers to First, Break All The Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, which the DNA calls a path-breaking book that helps bypass The Peter Principle. The 1999-book is a good resource for managers and HR professionals; but not path-breaking. Dr Peter gave original, ‘twisted’ and valid ways to counter The Peter Principle, so the path had already been laid. Dr Peter’s original terminology for occupational issues like ‘copelessness’ or ‘lateral arabesque’ are part of the book’s immense appeal.

Robert I. Sutton, the author of The No Asshole Rule, narrates a small story in the foreword for the 1969 classic that would sound familiar to a lot of people. Robert’s father Lewis Sutton ran a company in San Francisco that sold furniture and related equipment that was installed on United States Navy Ships. His livelihood depended on US government bureaucrats and shipyard managers. Robert grew up listening to his father’s tirades on how these ‘overpaid idiots’ wanted that he produce and procure poorly-designed furnishings, how they could barely do their jobs, and how pathetically lazy they were. To make matters worse, senior government officials produced an onslaught of absurd procedures that required him to jump through an ever-expanding maze of administrative hoops—which wasted his time, drove up his costs, and made him crazy. He concluded: The morons at the top must be paid to waste as much taxpayer money as possible.

Consider journalist Raymond Hull’s experience: “I receive mail from a large university. Fifteen months ago I changed my address. I sent the usual notice to the university: my mail kept going to the old address. After two-more notices and a phone call, I made a personal visit. I pointed with my finger to the wrong address in their records, dictated the new address and watched a secretary take it down. The mail still went to the old address. Two days ago there was a new development. I received a phone call from the woman who had succeeded me in my old apartment and who, of course, had been receiving my mail from the university. She herself had just moved again, and my mail from the university has now started going to her new address!”

Raymond was grumbling one evening, during the second break of a dull play, about incompetent actors and directors, when he got into a conversation with Dr Laurence J. Peter, a scientist who had devoted many years to the study of incompetence. The break was too short and Hull went to Dr Peter’s house and sat till 3:00 am listening to the lucid and original exposition of a theory that at last answered his question, “Why incompetence?”

As Dr Peter had a busy schedule he agreed to a collaboration: Dr Peter would place his extensive research and huge manuscript with Hull, who would condense it into a book. The result is a required reading for those who don’t mind laughing at themselves.

The decision to read on is irrevocable and Hull says it must not be taken lightly. “If you read, you can never regain your present state of blissful ignorance; you will never again unthinkingly venerate your superiors or dominate your subordinates. Never! The Peter Principle, once heard, cannot be forgotten.”

The key to bypassing and unlocking The Peter Principle is inside you and me; and every lock is different so no one can help anyone but oneself. The Peter Principle offers life-quality-improvement over mindless promotion to oblivion.

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