Monday, October 3, 2011

The Speedy Peter Principle

In this post I refine the Peter Principle by adding a time-minimization law; this I then combine with the Iron Law of Bureaucracy, and from this derive the Law of Least Usefulness.

The Peter Principle states that any employee in a hierarchy tends to rise to his level of incompetence, where he then stays; therefore hierarchies tend to accumulate incompetent employees. Dr. Peter's logic is impeccable; but more can be added to it.

For there are many positions within the hierarchy where the employee can be incompetent; and perhaps many other positions where the employee would be competent, above that employee's equilibrium level. Of all the possible incompetence levels, the employee achieves the first one in line, and then stops.

Therefore the employee not only achieves an incompetence level, he or she does so as quickly as possible .

I call this the "Speedy Peter Principle", namely:
Any employee in a hierarchy tends to rise to a level of incompetence, and do so as quickly as possible.

Now consider the "Iron Law of Bureaucracy":
Any bureaucracy tends to be ruled by those who put the bureaucracy's interests ahead of its purpose.

The Peter Principle says that hierarchies tend to have incompetent staff; the Iron Law says that hierarchies tend to have corrupt leadership; and to these we can add a time-minimization law: this yields the "Speedy Iron Peter" (SIP) Principle:
Any hierarchy tends to become corrupt and incompetent as quickly as possible.

Let Usefulness = Competence + Integrity + Time  :
then the SIP Principle implies the LOLU: the "Law of Least Usefulness". 

My friend Paul Anderson notes:
So do non-hierarchical systems, as long as there is competitive promotion. More importantly, such systems become incompetent at corruption; when working for the private interests of the institution becomes the criterion for promotion, bureaucrats will stop being promoted when they are incompetent at partaking in the corruption.”

And by golly, he’s right! Formal hierarchy merely formalizes the Speedy-Peter process; competition itself inherently implies ultimate incompetence. And as for becoming incompetent at corruption... Shall we call this second-order corruption? The corruption of corruption? Turning from a liar into a bad liar? Let's draw a distinction between "corrupt incompetence" - the normal mode for institutions - and "incompetent corruption", as he describes.

His argument is both Machiavellian and Peterian. He says that in a corrupt institution with competitive promotions, employees will tend to advance in corruption until they reach their level of incompetent corruption; and furthermore will do so in the shortest possible time.

In honor of my friend's brilliant insight, I hereby dub this "Paul Anderson's Law" of "Speedy Incompetent Corruption".


  1. First, congrats on your new blog. If you go to Google AdSense and sign up, you can get enough ads to pay for maintenance of the site.

    --Leslie <;)))>< )O(

  2. Thanks Leslie, I think I'll have fun here in the blogosphere. I'll get to ads and such in due course.