Peter, Parkinson and Adams


Parkinson's Law coverC. Northcote Parkinson, Lawrence J. Peter, and Scott Adams are for me the ‘holy trinity’ of philosophers of modern bureaucracy, within both the public service and the corporate structure. As philosophers, they are all keen observers and witty commentators on the human condition, with emphasis on the nature of organizations, leadership and management.

Not always in the lofty or strategically-focused terms of, say, Sun Tzu or Machiavelli; all three are more prosaic and more cynical. And funnier – an adjective seldom used with either classical writer.

These three pundits are, of course, well-known today: every CEO, corporate leader and ambitious manager worth their salt knows and has read their work. All are required reading in many business courses and workshops. Even dedicated, effective elected government officials and elected representatives have read them (Stop that guffawing, you local residents…)

Parkinson’s Law, first formulated in a magazine article in 1955, is that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Which might explain why putting together a shared services agreement between Collus Powerstream and the town has taken more than a year to do what most people could do in an afternoon over a beer.

Dilbert and Parkinson's Law

Parkinson also created the idea of the “coefficient of inefficiency,” a parameter to describe how committees become increasingly less efficient as their size grows until they become completely and utterly inefficient.

Parkinson’s theory was based on quantity: the greater the size of the organization the lower its efficiency, pointing to trends based on English history. I, however, tend to measure quality over quantity in such situations. Five bobbleheads are, for example, more inefficient in a committee than, say, 50 independent-thinking geniuses. While the latter might accomplish something useful given enough time, the former merely bloviate.

Another contribution was Parkinson’s Law of Triviality which states that “members of an organisation give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.” Or as Parkinson phrased it, “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.” His example was a committee debating the development of an expensive, complex nuclear plant: it spent more time debating the construction of its bicycle shed than any major component.

Anyone who has followed council budget discussions recognizes this law in practice: significantly more time is spent on small amounts than on the big ticket items. Except of course this term, when staff told council what to think during the budget discussions, and refused to answer questions. The Bobbleheads accepted this process, thus quickening the timeline by skirting the messy business of democracy, and frank, open discussion.

Parkinson derived many laws about civil service and bureaucracy from his research, such as “Delay is the deadliest form of denial,” and “A person denied the possibility of making important decisions will regard as important those decisions he is allowed to make.”

He pointed to the historical growth of the bloated British civil service and declared that,

  1. An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals, and
  2. Officials make work for each other.

Then there’s Parkinson’s brilliantly witty  theory about “Injelititis” – a portmanteau word cobbled together from INcomptence and JEaLousy. It is, he wrote, a self-induced disease, the cause of bureaucratic and organizational paralysis:

WE FIND everywhere a type of organization (administrative, commercial, or academic) in which the higher officials are plodding and dull, those less senior are active only in intrigue against each other, and the junior men are frustrated or frivolous. Little is being attempted. Nothing is being achieved. And in contemplating this sorry picture, we conclude that those in control have done their best, struggled against adversity, and have finally admitted defeat.
… The first sign of danger is represented by the appearance in the organization’s hierarchy of an individual who combines in himself a high concentration of incompetence and jealousy. …when these two qualities reach a certain concentration– represented at present by the formula I3J5– there is a chemical reaction. The two elements fuse, producing a new substance that we have termed “injelitance.”
The presence of this substance can be safely inferred from the actions of any individual who, having failed to make anything of his own department, tries constantly to interfere with other departments and gain control of the central administration.

Parkinson adds that once in control, the injelitant manager works aggressively to cement his authority by eliminating anyone who might be more competent or smarter and avoiding visionary activities:

The next or secondary stage in the progress of the disease is reached when the infected individual gains complete or partial control of the central organization… The injelitant individual is easily recognizable at this stage from the persistence with which he struggles to eject all those abler than himself, as also from his resistance to the appointment or promotion of anyone who might prove abler in course of time… Judgment … signifies in this context the opposite of intelligence; it means, in fact, doing what was done last time.

The disease progresses until the end:

The next or tertiary stage in the onset of this disease is reached when there is no spark of intelligence left in the whole organization from top to bottom… It is as if the whole institution had been sprayed with a DDT solution guaranteed to eliminate all ability found in its way.

It’s a pretty damning satire and I’m sure you will find in it echoes of any political or bureaucratic situation you consider, local or otherwise.

Back in 1968, Lawrence J. Peter proposed his law about management that said: in an organization people rise to their level of incompetence. Or in more general terms, “Anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails.”

People who are good at their jobs jobs keep getting promoted until they reach the level where they can no longer function effectively or efficiently. They reach their level of incompetence. The danger to the organization is when they are allowed to continue in that role.

As Wikipedia says, Peter also “… coined the term hierarchiology as the social science concerned with the basic principles of hierarchically organized systems in the human society.”
Dilbert cartoon

Peter wrote that poor or incompetent managers will help more competent subordinate staff fail, or even dismiss them when it appears they will “…violate the first commandment of hierarchical life with incompetent leadership: [namely that] the hierarchy must be preserved.”

This hearkens back to Parkinson’s “injelititis” remarks. When someone wants to be the smartest person in the room, they lower the bar to a more attainable level by removing anyone who might be smarter.

Dunning-Kruger effectThe Dunning-Kruger Effect is closely related to the Peter Principle because it points to a certain self-delusion of competence. It hypothesizes that, “…unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority. They mistakenly rate their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to their inadequate ability to recognize their own ineptitude.” For a given skill, researchers found that incompetent people will:

  • fail to recognize their own lack of skill
  • fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
  • fail to recognize genuine skill in others

Which, of course, makes one wonder if this helps explain why the provincially-respected, accomplished and highly experienced COO of the water utility quit in frustration last year, and the provincially-respected, accomplished and highly experienced CEO of the electricity utility is currently being badgered and harassed.

(Meanwhile, poke your nose into the Yerkes–Dodson law which basically says “…performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases.” In other words, pressure and stress are good motivators at first, but if continued too long lead to poor performance. It relates to the Peter Principle if you think about it: promotions often lead to more stress, more pressure, which in turn decreases performance…)

The idea behind Peter’s insight was intriguing enough to spawn a witty BBC TV series, appropriately titled “The Peter Principle.” Sadly, it only lasted two seasons.

But brilliant and witty as Parkinson and Peter were, they lack the biting cynicism of Scott Adams.

Dilbert Principle

Adams proposed the Dilbert Principle in the 1990s, which says that, “…companies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to management (generally middle management), in order to limit the amount of damage they are capable of doing.”

This actually assumes that the Peter Principle is in not effect: the upper echelons of an organization become deliberately populated with ineffective, inefficient people while the real work is done by the low-mid levels. The way to get the least efficient people out of the way where they cannot interrupt the workflow, he says, is to promote them.

In his Dilbert comic strip Adams has his character Dogbert say that “…leadership is nature’s way of removing morons from the productive flow.” Adams said in an interview that the Dilbert Principle is “…akin to a band of gorillas choosing an alpha-squirrel to lead them.” Adams said himself in another interview:

I wrote The Dilbert Principle around the concept that in many cases the least competent, least smart people are promoted, simply because they’re the ones you don’t want doing actual work. You want them ordering the doughnuts and yelling at people for not doing their assignments—you know, the easy work.

In a Wall Street Journal column in 1995, Adams wrote:

Lately, however, the Peter Principle has given way to the Dilbert Principle. The basic concept of the Dilbert Principle is that the most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management. This has not proved to be the winning strategy that you might think.

Maybe we should learn something from nature. In the wild, the weakest moose is hunted down and killed by Dingo dogs, thus ensuring survival of the fittest. This is a harsh system — especially for the Dingo dogs that have to fly all the way from Australia. But nature’s process is a good one; everybody agrees, except perhaps for the Dingo dogs and the moose in question…and the flight attendants. But the point is that we’d all be better off if the least competent managers were being eaten by Dingo dogs instead of writing mission statements.

It seems as if we’ve turned nature’s rules upside down. We systematically identify and promote the people who have the least skills. The usual business rationalization for promoting idiots (the Dilbert Principle in a nutshell) is something along the lines of “Well, he can’t write code, he can’t design a network, and he doesn’t have any sales skill. But he has very good hair…”

Peter described two different, but related scenarios: first, the “lateral arabesque” where an incompetent employee is moved to another, usually peripheral position where he or she cannot gum up the works. Usually a fancy title is compensation for the lack of contact with the operations. Then there is “percussive sublimation” in which the incompetent manager is simply promoted to another position in another division or into management to get him or her out of the way of productive employees. But in the Dilbert Principle, the incompetents just ride the train right to the top. Choo, choo!

All three writers have in common that they approached their topics and their conclusions with a seriousness masked by humour and wit. Adams is, of course, the most barbed among them (and the most recent).

Their laws and observations apply equally in the public and private sectors. In my experience and my reading, there is little apparent difference between the bureaucracy and hierarchies of public and private sectors in terms of structure and management, aside from two major considerations:

  • It is easier to fire (substitute dehire, outplace, derecruit, destaff or your euphemism of choice) someone in the private sector, and;
  • Ironically, the behaviour of employees in the private sector is often more open and transparent than those in the public sector.

In both sectors, there are hierarchies where employees fight with incompetent managers and people get promoted well above their ability. It has always been thus, whether aided and abetted by other executives or by council.

Of course, competence may be subjective, or context-sensitive. In a future post, I’ll examine some of the signs and habits of an incompetent manager, according to other sources.

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  1. Pingback: Spotting incompetence | Scripturient

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