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The Peter Squared Principle

Posted by Dr No on 12 August 2009

fighter_pig.jpgHierachiology – the “-ology” that studies hierarchies – was founded by Dr Laurence J Peter, who also gave his name to the eponymous Peter Principle: that, in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his or her level of incompetence.

The idea is straightforward. We humans tend to order our affairs in hierarchies, with a series of ranks from the bottom to the top. Individuals, who are still below their level of incompetence, perform well enough to be promoted up through the ranks until one day they rise to one level above their competence where they stall, unable to perform, and unable to move on. There they will then remain, bungling the job and frustrating all around them. They have arrived at their Final Placement. Over time, increasing numbers of individuals arrive at their Final Placement, the organisation clogs up and ultimately fails.

This grim analysis of the inevitable accumulation of deadwood at all levels of the organisation is of course very familiar to those of us who have experience of the NHS. The once excellent clinical nurse promoted to ward manager, now with her own office and laptop computer, fools no one.

More recently, I have noticed that the NHS has added its own additional twist of the Peter Principle. Not content to allow, and in certain cases encourage, staff to gain Final Placement as rapidly as possible, the NHS has now found a way to, as they say in financial circles, leverage the Peter Principle.

Given the ease with which staff find Final Placement, at any one time many will be in that position. In any other organisation, they would stay there, bungling their way through until their turn comes to receive the carriage clock. But this is the NHS – and in the NHS quite senior managers can and do fall off their perches quite often. A sudden void is created – and it needs to be filled.

So what does the NHS do? It moves every body up one level. The ward manager becomes the Acting Head of Inpatient Services. The Head of Inpatient services becomes Acting Manager (Western Region). And so on, until all the managers are acting up. [Quite possibly in more ways than one - Ed.]

Now the sad fact is, they had already reached their level of incompetence. Promoting them one tier higher up in the organisation doubles the extent to which they are beyond their level of competence. Only, the effect is not so much additive as multiplicative: and so we have the Peter Squared Principle.

Now – doesn’t that explain why most NHS managers haven’t got a clue?

1 comment

In my point of view, some organizations realize that technical people may be very valuable for their skills but poor managers, and so provide parallel career paths allowing a good technical person to acquire pay and status reserved for management in most organizations.
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