Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The New Peter Principle

I grew up in the Southern California town of Palos Verdes Estates, where a nearby neighbor, Laurence J. Peter became famous  by stating "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence ... in time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties ... Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence."

Dr. Peter served on the faculty of the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, where my mother also served as faculty.

You could say I had one degree of separation from Dr. Peter.

Over the weekend, a brilliant article in the New York Times suggested that there is a new Peter Principle - you are promoted to your level of misery.

For example,

Folks who are brilliant teachers become department chairpeople.

Accomplished researchers become Deans

Intensively creative engineers become management executives.

And many start drinking heavily to overcome the angst of their new roles.

My wife has watched my progression from software developer to entrepreneur to doctor to administrator and knows that I must always keep an outlet for my engineering creativity.   Generally innovation is always possible in the hospital setting, but during periods of intense regulatory burden that co-opts the innovation agenda, my creativity is expressed during my night and weekend work at Unity Farm.

Thinking about the New York Times article, I’ve put together a top 10 guide for IT leaders to avoid the decline into misery at work while keeping their livers intact.

1.   Review every meeting on your calendar and assess its value - can meetings be eliminated, consolidated, or reduced in frequency?   No one ever died and had a tombstone that reads “my only regret is missing meetings”.   Fewer meetings means more time for creativity.

2.   Build thinking time into your calendar.   One executive recently told me - “I’m giving up my laptop, because as a leader I never create anything, I just review other people’s work.”   A day of reviewing endless email with no time for personal authorship stifles creativity.

3.  Wait out the naysayers/evil people.   You can choose to engage in political battles or just ignore them.   Most naysayers will eventually implode or leave.   Put your energy into creative doing rather than being consumed by arguments you cannot win.

4.  Change management often depends on external events.  As Rahm Emmanuel said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”   Propose creative solutions when the urgency for change is clear.

5.   Delegate conflict management among many people, reducing the creative drain  for all.   However, you should be willing to invest 10% of your time to  confrontation, reducing the future burden created by bad planning, so that 90% can be freed up for innovation.

6.   If there is a vacuum of leadership in the hierarchy of your organization, do not be overwhelmed by it, work around it to implement your creative ideas.

7.   You cannot solve every problem simultaneously and sometimes you need to let sleeping dogs lie.    It is far better to have a few creative wins in the short term and accept that some longstanding problems will be solved incrementally over time.

8.   Accept that there are some things you cannot change and if there is misalignment of authority and accountability, focus instead on things you can creatively improve.

9.   Know when you are the rating limiting step to creativity.    Many years ago, I showed an early microprocessor to a “tube era” technology leader.   The person told me “I do not understand the technology and I never want to discuss it again.”    I’m a web developer but not an app developer.    I keep myself useful by enabling creative app developers to do work that is beyond my expertise.

10.  Re-invent yourself.    Even though I have been a CIO since 1997, my job has morphed every 3 years - I have been an infrastructure expert, a security expert, a cloud expert, a mobile expert, and an interoperability expert.    As the goals change, the work changes, ensuring that I’m never complacent, always solving new problems creatively.

As the summer ends and the post Labor Day chaos returns, I encourage everyone to reduce misery whenever possible.   And the drinking will get better, I promise.

1 comment:

William Hersh said...

Thanks John, this is great, and not only applies to IT leaders but also academic informatics leaders as well. (And perhaps all people who work in knowledge industries.)