The Peter Principle Is Real But Agile Techniques Can Beat It

What causes the “Peter Principle” to rise up and ruin someone’s career? According to the principle, named after Dr. Laurence Peter, “In a hierarchically structured administration, people tend to be promoted up to their level of incompetence”.

That’s a scathing comment. It is often repeated and there are many examples of people who get promoted only to fail in their new jobs. How is it possible that someone who earned a promotion by doing a good job, turns out to be ineffective or incompetent in his new job? Here are a few possibilities.

  1. An individual contributor is promoted to manager. It happens all the time. Many workers aspire to be managers. With proper training and coaching along with good people skills, anyone can be a manager. Unfortunately, the training and coaching part is often missing. Another critical success factor (CSF) for managers is the ability to multitask. Without it, the Peter Principle rules.
  2. A subject matter expert (SME) is promoted and assumes responsibilities beyond her core area of expertise. Assuming the new area of responsibility is related to the SME’s existing knowledge base, taking on a bigger role can work. Of course, the SME will need help and guidance. A good mentor can be invaluable in making the transition. And she will need to master that multitasking CSF.
  3. A great implementer is promoted into the role of designer. Design work is different from implementation work. The skills, tools and approaches are related but not identical. Training and mentoring are key ingredients. Oh, and designers tend to do much more multitasking (CSF).
  4. A technical genius is promoted into a role that requires people skills (e.g. negotiation). Once someone masters the objective part of their job (technical details), that person often wants to try out the subjective (human interaction) part of the job. Fair enough, though the skill sets are usually vastly different. And, anything involving people will invariably require that CSF – multitasking.
  5. Someone who is accustomed to focusing on a small number of tasks is promoted into job that demands multitasking across a broader array of work. There it is again.

Do you see a pattern here?

The lack of training, coaching and/or mentoring is a solvable problem. Why would any company invest time and money in an employee, promote the person, assign her new and more strategic responsibilities, and then drop the ball? It’s insane! Greatness doesn’t just happen. It requires constant vigilance.

As for the problem of multitasking, it’s not going away. When we multitask, we are less efficient. We make more mistakes, miss important details, and forget critical facts.

There’s a simple solution. It’s based on the fourth principle of the Agile Manifesto – “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.” It’s called teamwork. The solution to the multitasking problem is teamwork. Share the workload. Divide and conquer. Many hands make light work. Many minds do great work.

The next time you get promoted do two things. 1) Get help. Insist on training and mentoring. 2) Don’t go it alone. Collaborate with your coworkers and team members.

Updated: April 26, 2012 — 10:20 pm