The Peter Principle - Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull

Another present from Dan and Katie. Many people have heard of the Peter Printiple - "In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his own level of incompetence" - but I suspect rather fewer have read the book. It's rather good.

It runs the risk of being a one-joke book, but it copes admirably well. It's shortish, at 170-odd well-padded pages, but still has plenty of content with amusing case studies and insights throughout. I think the only weakness is the illustrations, which are made by recycling old Punch cartoons, removing the captions and replacing them with lines from the text. Very hit and miss, and mostly miss at that. Fortunately, the original punchlines are available in an appendix, so as a random bonus you get a selection of jokes from around 1850-1890. Very random.

The book's subject matter is scarily ha-ha-only-serious. As someone who's recently been promoted, it's pretty close to touching a raw nerve! However, I think Peter was unduly optimistic. In his model of the world, people make their way up the hierarchy, being competent until they hit their natural limit. However, in the real world, before hitting their natural limit, people run up against the limits of their current skills and knowledge, develop, get promoted, and fall back a step again. This means that, in many cases, people are incompetent for a good fraction of their career, not just in their terminal position. Indeed, in 'challenging' environments, pretty much everyone is incompetent all of the time!

The book's style is lovely, and it's a clear predecessor to Systemantics/The Systems Bible. It's well-thought-through and, well, competent. Fun to read.

Posted 2012-05-10.