Opposite of the Peter Principle

Peter Principle book cover

The Peter Principle is an idea that was developed by Lawrence Peter and expanded into a book coauthored with Raymond Hull in 1969. It says that people rise to their level of incompetence. According to the Peter Principle, competent people are repeatedly promoted until they get to a level where they’re not bad enough to fire but not good enough to promote.

I haven’t thought about the Peter Principle in a while, but I was reminded of it when I was reading One Giant Leap and was struck by this line:

He was the opposite of the Peter Principle.

What a great thing to have someone say about you. So what was the context of that line?

Jane Tindall said it about her husband Bill. The title of that chapter in One Giant Leap is “The Man Who Saved Apollo.” The author, Charles Fishman, is saying indirectly that Bill Tindall was the man who saved Apollo by getting the program’s software development effort on track. The previous chapter, “The Fourth Crew Member” explained how Apollo’s guidance computer, primitive as its hardware was by contemporary standards, was absolutely critical to the missions.

Here’s the paragraph containing the line above.

By 1966 Tindall had had years of management experience; one engineer who worked for him said that Tindall liked remaining the deputy in the divisions where he worked because it gave him more actual ability to get things done, more maneuvering room, and considerably less bureaucratic hassle. Said his wife, Jane, “He was the opposite of the Peter Principle.” [1] Tindall had the ability and experience to absorb, understand, and sort out serious technical problems, and that ability earned him the respect of his colleagues, even when they didn’t get the decision they wanted.

More Peter Principle posts

[1] No one used the term “Peter Principle” during the Apollo program because Dr. Peter had not yet coined the term yet. The quote from Jane Tindall came from Fishman interviewing her in 2016.

3 thoughts on “Opposite of the Peter Principle

  1. There is a worse source of structural incompetence in organizations than the Peter Principle, and that is Coase’s Ceiling. It has been expressed in various formulations but the essence of it is that friction is > linear in the number of independent components. This, for example, is why you can’t build a clock that will run for ten years on a winding, although it would be trivially easy to *design* one. In the context of organizations, each additional person adds more friction until a point — the “ceiling” — at which all of the energy that the organization is capable of generating goes to overcoming internal friction, and there is none left over to apply to the organization’s nominal purposes.

    Actual experience implies that Coase’s Ceiling is ~~100 persons, and that it is a very hard ceiling indeed. This limitation would still operate even if the Peter Principle could be overcome.

  2. From leaving the military until I graduated university, I worked as a technician at a well-known technology company. Each class I took seemed to trigger a reevaluation of my job and tasks, until I was taking on full engineer responsibilities during the summer before my second Senior year (5-year plan). When I graduated I got a job offer that far exceeded that of my peers, as I was a known and rapidly rising quantity.

    Once graduated and hired, I was fast-tracked up the ladder. I was the most junior engineer in the R&D group. Then I was given complete responsibility for a high-profile but small defense contract just 4 years after graduation. I had a flair, even a talent, for management. My team loved working for me. Everyone above me loved my work. I intentionally sought engineers no other managers wanted, and tried my best to give them their favorite work. They ALWAYS rose to the demands I place upon them.

    But I wasn’t happy. I was no longer hands-on, other than when an “all hands on deck” disaster arose (which my team easily handled). I loved all the pluses of management, but I missed writing code, executing tests, designing sensors, using the fire extinguisher.

    I frequently thought about what bizarre version of the Peter Principle I was inhabiting, where I had not yet risen to my competency limit, but didn’t like it the path to it.

    My team nailed that contract, after which I requested reassignment as a senior engineer, rather than as a manager. At which point I was informed that I was “management track” and there was no place for me below my current level, but multiple places at and above my current assignment.

    I left the company after 3 months of fighting. I really hated I was forced to make that choice.

    I’ve remained an engineer (of ever escalating seniority) for the 30 years since. I figure my “tithe” for staying an engineer is to do my best to ensure my management succeeds. Which is not just ensuring they do what I tell them ;^). What it really means is ensuring they get to take their vacations, with no worries that things will fall apart in their absence. I *can* manage when needed, just not as my “day job”.

    What kind of Peter Principle is it where I choose to stay where I’m both happy and productive/profitable? I’m in my 60’s now, and still both doing and loving it!

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