I came across an excerpt of a satire as I was reading Dreaming in Code. The satire was written as a reaction to the many conflicts that arose in a conference on software engineering. These conflicts included the question on the need for an international software engineering institute among many others. Anyway, back to the satire… It was set in the 1500s in the heyday of art masterpieces, and it tries to draw the parallels between the creation of masterpieces and the creation of software. The excerpt follows; full text can be found here: http://homepages.cs.ncl.ac.uk/brian.randell/NATO/NATOReports/index.html#Appendix
They set about equipping the masterpiece workers with some more efficient tools to help them create masterpieces. They invented power-driven chisels, automatic paint tube squeezers and so on… Production was still not reaching satisfactory levels… Two weeks at the Institute were spent in counting the number of brush strokes per day produced by one group of painters, and this criterion was then promptly applied in assessing the value to the enterprise of the rest. If a painter failed to turn in his twenty brush strokes per day he was clearly under-productive. Regrettably none of these advances in knowledge seemed to have any real impact on masterpiece production and so, at length, the group decided that the basic difficulty was clearly a management problem. One of the brighter students (by the name of L. da Vinci) was instantly promoted to manager of the project, putting him in charge of procuring paints, canvases and brushes for the rest of the organisation.
More than the failure to “scientificize” the production of masterpieces, what struck me the most is the supposed promotion of L. da Vinci. The satire had also presented an example of the Peter Principle which states that “in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”. In the case of L. da Vinci, he had probably shown competence or even a certain level of excellence in his work for him to have been considered as one of the brighter students. In promoting him to manager, the skills that got him there end up as no longer needed, and it’s more likely than not that his new post requires new skills in which he’s still ill-equipped. With the Peter Principle, the competent worker moves up a notch higher to become an incompetent whatever-the-next-post-is.
Interesting derivations from the Peter Principle the following corollaries:
- In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties
- Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence
And while it takes competence to get promoted in the Peter Principle, alternative principles include:
- Septic Tank Principle – simply put as “excrement rising to the top”
- Dilbert Principle – similar to the previous item; this principle picks on PHBs who have never been competent at anything at any point in time yet still gets promoted to management