Laurence Peter's The Peter Principle was the Dilbert of its times, providing an irreverent, and all-too-human view of how to progress up the corporate hierarchy.
The best-selling business book of recent years has not been some weighty study of best management practice by a fashionable consultant. It has been The Dilbert Principle by Scott Adams. Adams' humourous, human and, for some, all-too-real cartoons of corporate life captured the managerial imagination. Indeed, the book is reputed to be the best-selling business book of all time. To some, Dilbertian frivolity is a needless distraction. Gary Hamel, co-author of Dilbert's business blockbuster predecessor, Competing for the Future, regards Dilbert as engendering an infectious strain of cynicism among managers - 'it is cynical about management. Never has there been so much cynicism,' he laments.
Every cynic has his day
The truth, however, is that such a jaundiced view of the way businesses and managers operate is nothing new. Dilbert is simply an accurate and amusing portrayal of corporate cynicism 1990s-style.
From Murphy's Law to Parkinson's Law, from Pudd'nhead Wilson to Stanley Bing, a steady infusion of comic scepticism has been injected into the corporate canon. Perhaps the most enduring, cynical classic is The Peter Principle written by Laurence J Peter with the writer Raymond Hull. First published in 1969, The Peter Principle is built around the simple premise: 'In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence'. According to Peter, a position of incompetence is the apotheosis of a corporate career - or, indeed, of any career in any profession in which there is a hierarchy. ('There are no exceptions to the Peter Principle.')
The book explains: 'For each individual, for you, for me, the final promotion is from a level of competence to a level of incompetence. So, given enough time - and assuming the existence of enough ranks in the hierarchy - each employee rises to, and remains at, his level of incompetence.' The end-result is the corollary to the Peter Principle: 'In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties.'
The book is laced with wittily cynical advice. 'If at first you don't succeed, you may be at your level of incompetence,' it warns. It covers areas of concern to all managers. On vision, it proclaims: 'If you don't know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else'. On economists: 'An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn't happen'. For anyone who has worked in an organisation, Peter's observations are likely to ring true - or set off alarm bells. There may even be a feeling of guilt that you have engaged in 'cachinatory inertia' (telling jokes instead of working) or exhibit 'hypercaninophobia complex' ('fear caused in superiors when an inferior demonstrates strong leadership potential'). All corporate life is there.
At the time of the book's creation, the business world was undoubtedly burdened by excessive hierarchies. Corporations creaked under their weight.
Executives crowded into office blocks. It was reputed that a depiction of the complex hierarchies at British Steel took up an entire office wall. Labyrinths of this kind were common. That does not mean the Peter Principle is a dusty historical joke. The beauty of the Peter Principle - if it can be called beauty - is that it is timeless. Human inadequacy is universal, as is the human capacity to build vacuous power structures. In our supposedly leaner and fitter times there are still hierarchies aplenty. The difference is, perhaps, that we have simply become more adept at disguising them.
Apart from pure amusement, however, The Peter Principle continues to have a worthwhile role in the canon of management classics, because it is a celebration of failure. Glorious inadequacy is its theme. In the book's glossary, the entry for failure simply reads 'see Success'. Success, of course, is 'final placement at the level of incompetence'. There are two kinds of failures, it reflects: 'Those who thought and never did, and those who did and never thought.' Later it adds: 'Fortune knocks once, but misfortune has much more patience' and 'there are two sorts of losers - the good loser, and the other one who can't act'.
The Peter Principle remains a poignant antidote to the blind optimism and sugary reality of most business books. It is a reminder that corporate reality is not usually about grand designs and great decisions. It is more mundane and frustrating. Too mundane and too frustrating to be taken seriously. The Peter Principle cuts managers and management down to size. We cannot all be indomitable leaders who get it right every time so why aspire to be so?
The Peter Principle lives on. Dilbert creator, Scott Adams, has noted that: 'Now, apparently, the incompetent workers are promoted directly to management without ever passing through the temporary competence stage. When I entered the workforce in 1979, The Peter Principle described management pretty well. Now I think we'd all like to return to those golden years when you had a boss who was once good at something.'
The Principle lives on
It is striking how relevant The Peter Principle remains today. When Peter refers to 'codophilia' (defined as 'speaking in letters and numbers instead of words'), he could be talking of today's consultants. Demonstrating the timeless and universal quality of the Principle, there is also mention of 'computerised incompetence: incompetent application of computer techniques or the inherent incompetence of a computer'. Microsoft's Bill Gates would probably disagree but he may well be a fan. After all, Gates has proposed one of the most brilliant solutions to the Peter Principle: 'The art of management is to promote people without making them managers'.