For those who don’t know, the Peter Principle is the belief that in an organization where promotion is based on achievement, people will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability. Put simply: “Employees rise to their level of incompetence.” More generally, anything that works well (including humans) will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails. Human beings love to use what has worked before, even when that isn’t the best course right now. They fail when they reach the upper limit of their ability to adapt to something new.
How much of the Peter Principle is a vestige of the industrial Age? If anything defined the 20th Century, it was the move from an agrarian world to one where people moved indoors in enormous numbers and began working in hierarchical structures. Those structures required leadership to keep things productive and we set up teams of workers and managers. We built whole sciences around it. We promoted people for working hard at whatever they were expected to do, which was usually pretty clear-cut. Management was about experience, not creativity.
Enter the Age of Disruption, which is our century. Jobs are no longer quite so prescribed and simply working hard isn’t enough. In fact, hard working people make up a sizable number of the unemployed. They belong to industries that die, roles that become cheaper overseas, and companies that are no longer competitive. So how does someone plot a course for success when everything we’ve been told is changing? There are two ways:
What will save your bacon in today’s world is an ability to assimilate large amounts of information, figure out what matters and act on it: Adaptation. And you have lots of competition. Thanks to the Web, everyone can learn anything fast and cheap. The value of a university education, once the only way to know the secrets of the successful world, has taken a hit now that anyone can digest the remarkable amount of information available to everyone. Sure, there’s a ‘rite of passage’ aspect and a networking value, but it isn’t what it used to be as the exclusive portal to good jobs. Learning and adaptation trump traditional education.
Once you’ve accepted that we compete on information, it isn’t a big leap to understand that workplace value and getting promoted are no longer a linear function of education and hard work. We help ourselves and our companies by being in a constant learning mode; assimilating information, filtering out the useless, and zeroing in on what counts to avoid risk and exploit opportunities.
Technology has an increasing role in this change. The best employees are the most connected to what’s happening and enabled with technology that finds, filters, and triggers. But how do you attract and retain the best, most adaptive workers in the Age of Disruption? You ensure you have trustworthy, fresh data on the marketplace and customers, analytics to interpret what it means and discover patterns, ways of pulling the big lever at the right moments, and tools to collaborate across a smart, adaptive workforce. There’s no alternative.
Having great people but poor systems breaks an organization just as quickly as poor management. Having smart people well-armed to make the right decisions at the right moments is the whole enchilada.
The successful Age of Disruption employee is a learner and adapter. The competitive employer in this age recognizes an adapter and enables them with excellent technology, making the Peter Principle so last century.