The Fish Rots From the Head

We need to learn to promote people to their level of competence rather than incompetence

P> Business process re-engineering has topped the list of hot management trends for the last few years. Long-winded definitions for BPR abound. WT's is simple: BPR means applying common sense to management.

Of all the BPR specialists over the years, Laurence J. Peter, author of the 1961 book ,"The Peter Principle," seems to have had the firmest grounding in common sense. He discerned the governing principle of bureaucracy in the now-famous phrase that employees inevitably "rise to their level of incompetence." This happens, Peter explained, because competent people within organizations tend to get promoted and do a great job until they are raised to a job they can't do. At this point, they are frozen within the upper reaches of their organizational hierarchy. Generally, they can't be fired because the people who promoted them would have to admit their mistake.

The older and larger the hierarchy, as in government, the more incompetent people tend to populate its higher echelons, until it becomes impossible to get work done. As the Russians like to say, "The fish rots from the head."

Incidentally, Stalin had an innovative approach to BPR and the Peter Principle: Every 10 years or so he would organize a campaign to shoot all the nation's top managers. Stalin's henchman, Lavrenti Beria, would vary this approach. "Make them work," he would say. "We can shoot them later."

Freshmen Republicans may envy such tactics. But in our democratic society, we must be more subtle. Newt Gingrich, who was recently reported to have broken down in tears, has a new-found appreciation for subtlety after his failed game of budget chicken with the Democrats.

The key lesson is this: Doing away with government managers will never improve the parts of government that must remain. Somehow, some way, government managers and the organizations they populate must be re-engineered. As Peter might have said, we need to learn to promote people to their level of competence rather than incompetence.

Admittedly, that may not be as easy as proposing the end of government, but it's far more constructive.


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