In a world full of contrasting theories and bittersweet concepts, I have a single favorite: The Peter Principle.

The Peter Principle is most commonly known in the context of bureaucracy, for which it concludes that competence is destined for failure. The example goes like this: Employee A is doing a fantastic job and is promoted. In the new position, Employee A shows exceptional skill and is, again, promoted. These promotions continue until eventually, Employee A is not proficient at their current position. If they were proficient, they would eventually be promoted. Instead they have reached to extent of what their talent allows. Because it is more difficult to demote someone rather than promote someone, Employee A either mires in mediocrity or failure.

This theory was published in 1969 by Laurence J. Peter. He explains the organizational facet of his theory this way: “… in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out” assigned duties, and that “work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence”.

I was employed by a rather large company who seemed like they based their internal mission statement on the Peter Principle, which is why it holds special distinction for me; I was graced by witnessing it first-hand. The problem is that this can be assigned not just to large organizations, but those of any size. Mid-level to small companies can especially ill afford to handle such a problem. With limited resources, those orgs have a hard time coping with key employees being anything but a net-positive.

If this is the first you’ve heard of this theory, it might seem terrible. It’s not that I see it as a positive but consider the polar opposite where no one has any mobility if they are successful. You fail to uncover any sort of potential internally and good employees are left in a rut. That end-game involves companies failing just as hard by not being able to retain talent. Hiring more talent is an option, but the price would be at a severe premium. In my opinion, this is the worst of the two situations.

Pretty cheery blog post so far, eh? You didn’t come here to read about the slow decrepitation of the workforce and the good news is that these are ends of the spectrum that generally exist in theory alone. Much like the reason you eat a Twinkie*, the pay-off is the creamy middle ground. And much like the ambiguous filling of a Twinkie, knowing the right questions to ask is key to staying healthy. Which path to growth fits your business? How do you know that the problems you face, and the challenges beset before you are being addressed with a winning strategy?


The VOV Way

Bottom line is that the situation and how you address it are both largely dictated by knowing what tools are in your tool box. When VOV gets tapped for our consulting gigs, our success keys in on first knowing what you can build. How you build it is just as important but trying to turn a screw with a hammer is going to yield some awkward results. That screw might be the ideal plan, but if all you have is a hammer then maybe we need to find an alternative nail.** There needs to be an honest assessment of materials before you construct anything.

VOV’s consulting strength is our experience to find the right plan for the right company. Consulting isn’t about jamming a bunch of actions down your company’s throat and demanding you chew. We’re more interested in showing you a menu of palatable options to move forward with your goals, then creating a plan that we’re both able to digest. If you don’t have a spoon, maybe the soup becomes a steak. If you don’t have a knife, we can blend that steak into a sort of protein shake that bodybuilders would be proud to consume.***

Point is, every company of nearly every make-up can succeed if they’re properly prepared to move forward. We both know that your company is full of excellent people. Unlocking their potential, keeping them focused on what they do well, and not putting them in a position to fail by asking unreasonable things of them are three cornerstones of creating a more successful business. That’s the VOV Principle. 

We think ours is a bit more upbeat than Peter’s.


* The only humanely-acceptable reason to eat a Twinkie is to recreate one of my favorite Ghostbusters scenes. We don’t stand in judgement of Twinkie’s or those who enjoy them. Twinkie’s are enjoyed by great people and we’re sure they have lovely little Twinkie-aficionados running around at home, but here we are.

** We don’t stand in judgement of the hammer. The hammer is a great tool and we’re sure it has lovely little hammers running around at home, but here we are.

*** We certainly don’t stand in judgement of bodybuilders. Bodybuilders are great and they are huge. Given that my first line of defense is screaming like a small child in hopes of shaming my attackers into leaving me alone, I want to be clear.