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Peter Principle – Fact or Fiction? October 5, 2009

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Trends.
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1 comment so far

This basic management  principle states that people rise in an organization to a level of incompetence. Every working professional can relate to this and may have experienced it already (or, will given time) by working with someone who has been promoted to a position that is beyond their capacity. At which time you ask ‘How did that person get his/her job?’

Whether fact or fiction*, the Peter principle is a fundamental reason why the Dilbert comic strip is so popular.  We all can relate to those situations where incompetence reigns despite our hope that logic and reason will prevail. Many people feel the situations depicted in Dilbert are unique to their company. But, that is why it is universally popular – it happens in lots of companies.

Over the course of my career, I have worked with people who demonstrate the Peter principle quite nicely and even have had a boss or two like that. Thus far, I believe I have avoided being a data point to validate this concept. I’m not sure but there may be some detractors about that.

Competence is also related to my last post on capacity. Possessing the knowledge and skills to do the job required and meet deadlines is a learned skill. Being a consistently solid performer that can also exceed expectations requires focus and dedication. Career advancement is based on past performance and potential to manage more complexity and extend capacity.

Would you admit it if you are an example of the Peter principle? Know someone who is? What signals do you watch for to ensure you are working at a high level of competence?

*Actually, while highly plausible, the Peter Principle is but a work of fiction. See the wikipedia entry which describes the authors and the related book.

Capacity for Spinning Plates October 2, 2009

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Trends.
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Ever see the variety act where someone is spinning plates?  Briefly, this starts off with a guy (usually) putting a plate on a stick and spinning it. He then successively adds more and more plates while keeping the originals plates spinning.  In a short time, he gives each plate another spin to prevent it from slowing down, falling off the stick  and breaking. Dating myself, as a wee lad, I have seen this act on the Ed Sullivan show a few times. Good performers end up literally running between the two rows of sticks of spinning plates but all reach a point where he can’t keep all of them spinning.

maxed out multi-tasking

maxed out multi-tasking

This is a great visual to determine your workload capacity. You know have reached that point when the plates start to break.  I think this analogy aptly illustrates when you have just that much more on your plate that you can manage. If you can keep the current set of plates spinning, that equates to some extra, unused capacity. A clear sign to add some more!

Well, maybe not.  Seems odd that we strive to work to the point where we start making mistakes. Having more plates than you can keep spinning is not good business practice. Mistakes are bad – lost time, cost of goods, re-work and so on.

Of course, I appreciate the other extreme – barely working on tasks when you are capable of much more. You want to keep every plate spining while avoiding  having any one break. Good communications with your peers and management is key to working at or near capacity. 


 To help keep your plates spinning, I offer some suggestions :

  1. Establish and document clearly defined goals – they should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timed).
  2. Be honest about what you can and cannot manage. Do not over-promise and under deliver.
  3. Control what you can by assuming the best while preparing for the worst.
  4. Ask help for support when you need it. You are not alone; ask for expertise when it is beyond your skill set.

If you have buy-in from your manager on this approach, you can keep all plates spinning. If not, you have some work ahead of you. As a manager myself, I want to have my team on average working as close to capacity as possible. Taking the long view, this implies there are peaks and valleys in the workload. I’m OK with that knowing that there are ebbs and flows in the workload. And, I monitor progress to committed goals (see above) during the year and review this with each report on a regular basis. 

I don’t like the sound of breaking plates (or, glass either).  Disrupts the workplace, requires getting replacements and then there is the clean up also. Keep your plates spinning and when they start to fall off and break, dial back a bit!

How do you measure your capacity? How many ‘plates’ are you spinning?