November 15th, 2009


Peter Principle saves Japan

I'm fascinated by ideas, and how they change the lives of the people who come up with them. It seems to be an interest that runs in the family; my mother once had a flirtatious correspondence with Cyril Parkinson, a man made famous by the simple observation that work expands to fill the time allocated for its completion.

The other day I came across another such idea, one I hadn't heard before. It's called The Peter Principle, was first described by Dr Laurence Peter in 1969, and states that in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. Basically, the principle states that people get rewarded for things they can do well by being promoted to the point at which they're doing something they can't do well. At that point the promotion stops, and there they stay.

There are some corollaries:

1. In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties.
2. Work is carried out by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.
3. Anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails.

This has mind-boggling ramifications; it could account for a world in which everyone is basically incompetent, because they've all been promoted to "the position of first failure", and left there to keep failing.

As often happens when you encounter a new idea like this, I immediately started applying the Peter Principle to real world situations. I happened to watch a documentary called Kublai Khan's Lost Fleet, which examines how a Mongol navy with superior weaponry and 4500 ships was destroyed while attempting to invade Japan in August 1281, with the loss of 130,500 Mongol soldiers and sailors.

Now, the main reason was that, just as had happened the last time the Mongols attempted to invade Japan, a kamikaze or "divine wind", in the form of a massive typhoon, whipped up and destroyed the invading navy.

But there were other factors. Kublai Khan promoted a general called Arakhan to lead the naval invasion. He'd distinguished himself in great on-land campaigns, but on the sea he was... all at sea. In terms of the Peter Principle, as a nautical commander Arakhan had reached his "position of first failure". Not just because former successes had led to his promotion to a post he was incompetent for, but because geographically Japan was the Mongol Empire's "position of first failure".

For Arakhan, though, "failure was not an option". He couldn't head home, having failed to crack Japan, and report his failure to Kublai Khan. He'd have been killed. So the biggest single maritime loss of life in the history of the world unfolded off the coast of Takashima, produced by a timely typhoon, samurai bravery, poor boat design (in their impatience the Mongols had seized flat-bottomed river boats to supplement their navy; their indentured Chinese boat-builders had also done deliberately shoddy work on the sea boats)... and the Peter Principle.