Book Review – The Peter Prescription
(reviewed by VIKRAM KARVE)
Title: The Peter Prescription
Author: Dr. Laurence J. Peter
Published: 1972 (William Morrow)
For the past few days it’s been raining cats and dogs in Pune, confining one indoors; the electricity and cable TV go off frequently, and this gave me a golden opportunity to dust off some of my favourite books from my bookshelves and re-read them sitting in the verandah sipping piping hot tea. I realized that re-reading good books gives me even greater pleasure. So that’s what I’m going to do for the next few days – browse my bookshelves, re-read some of my favourite books, and tell you about them or rather “review” them for you.
During my college days I read three non fiction books which had a lasting impact on me. The first was Parkinson’s Law (written in 1958) based on the author’s study of the British Civil Service and Admiralty. The other two books were written by Dr. Laurence J. Peter – The Peter Principle (1969) and The Peter Prescription (1972). These three Management Classics are a must for the bookshelves of every manager.
Written with incisive wit, Parkinson’s Law is a seminal book on the workings of bureaucracy which is essential reading for any student of Management. It is an all time management classic, a masterpiece, which is must reading for every manager.
The Peter Principle, a delightful read, provides a superb insight and intriguing study of hierarchiology. The Peter Principle may be Dr. Peter’s seminal pioneering work, but I feel The Peter Prescription is his definitive book, a classic.
If you have not read ‘The Peter Principle’, do read my review of the book appended below this article, as I feel it is prerequisite reading before you embark upon ‘The Peter Prescription’.
Whereas both Parkinson’s Law and The Peter Principle formulate and substantiate their respective theories, The Peter Prescription is a philosophical self-help treatise on how to achieve happiness in all aspects of life. Written in his same hilarious inimitable style, Dr. Peter exhorts us to be creative, confident and competent by replacing mindless escalation with life-quality improvement. The message of the book is in congruence with eastern philosophies which focus on inward enhancement rather than outward escalation.
In his introduction Dr. Peter states: “Many authors offer answers before they understand the questions…….. I understand the operation of the Peter Principle, and the remedies offered are the product of years of research……… prescriptions will lead to great personal fulfillment and joy of real accomplishment.”
The book, interspersed liberally with quotations and case studies, comprises three parts. The first, titled Incompetence Treadmill why conventional solutions not only fail to alleviate the effects of the Peter Principle but may actually serve to escalate the problems. His analysis of ‘marital incompetence’ is hilarious. A bachelor is a man who looks before he leaps – and then does not leap he concludes. With the flattening of hierarchies, I wonder whether there still exist any Professional Processionary Puppets – the organization-men. It would be worthwhile to look into organizations for similarities to prototypes adorning bureaucracies of yesteryear in order to ascertain whether it is a progressive or rigid hierarchy bound organization heading for decay.
The meat of the book is in Part Two, titled ‘Protect your Competence’ which give a total of 25 “prescriptions” on how to remain creative and competent. There are two things to aim at in life: first, to get what you want; and after that to enjoy it. The prescriptions, which are condensed wisdom of the ages, guide us on how to achieve this.
The greatest happiness you can have is knowing that you do not necessarily require happiness he quotes. Competence is a system dependant factor as viewed by your bosses (like beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder) and is governed by the HR policies in your organization. Why is man so competitive? Do the HR policies in your organization encourage competition, rat race and reward escalationary behaviour, and if so, what can you do about it? Maybe you can find some answers by exploring the prescriptions.
Let’s have a look at Peter Prescription 3 – The Peter Panorama – which I have used to great effect, which comprises listing your satisfying activities, joyful experiences, pleasant reminiscences, and after introspection make a second list of those which are feasible to do regularly and then make sure you do them whenever feasible. Enjoyable events begin to crowd out the unpleasant and you feel happy.
Do read, experiment, and try to imbibe the prescriptions in your professional and personal life, and experience the results for yourself. Introspect, evolve a philosophy of life, fine tune the art of living, concentrate your efforts within your area of competence, and have an improved quality of life consisting of abiding competence and contentment. If you cannot be happy here and now, you can never be happy.
Part Three of the book is written from the management perspective giving 42 “prescriptions” to Managers to contain and mitigate the effects of The Peter Principle in their domains and manage for competence. It views The Peter Principle from a manager’s point of view, and assuming the manager himself is not a victim of the Peter Principle, offers valuable tips in the HR Management, particularly recruitment, promotion and selection. ( Obviously, outsourcing wasn’t prevalent then in the sixties and seventies, otherwise how about ‘outsourcing’ incompetence).
As stated in the introduction, the purpose of The Peter Prescription is to explore how you yourself can mitigate the effects of The Peter Principle by avoiding the final placement syndrome, and as a manager, how can you keep your employees at their appropriate competence levels to achieve mutual optimal benefit. It’s only when you read the book and apply the prescriptions in your real life that you will experience the results.
Book Review – The Peter Principle
(reviewed by Vikram Karve)
The Book: The Peter Principle
Authors: Dr. Laurence J. Peter & Raymond Hull
Published: 1969 William Morrow
I think there is a Chinese saying that it is a misfortune to read a good book too early in life. I think I read ‘The Peter Principle’ too early in life. And at that time I being of an impressionable age, the book influenced me so much that I “rose” to my level of incompetence pretty fast, either unintentionally or by subconscious design.
I read ‘The Peter Principle’ in the early seventies, maybe sometime in 1972, when I was studying for my degree in Engineering, and even bought a personal copy of the book in 1974 (which I possess till this day) which considering my financial status those days was quite remarkable.
The book, written by Laurence J. Peter in collaboration with Raymond Hull, a management classic and masterpiece in the study of hierarchiology, is so fascinating, riveting and hilarious that once you start reading, it’s unputdownable.
In the first chapter itself, giving illustrative examples, the author establishes the Peter Principle: In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence and its corollary: In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent.
Dr. Peter writes in racy fictional style and as you read you experience a sense of verisimilitude and in your mind’s eye can see the Peter Principle operating in your very organization. That’s the way to savor the book, and imbibe its spirit – read an illustrative “case study” in the book and relate it to a parallel example in your organization.
He discusses cases which appear to be exceptions like percussive sublimation, lateral arabesque etc and demonstrates that The apparent exceptions are not exceptions. The Peter Principle applies in all hierarchies.
Discussing the comparative merits and demerits of applying ‘Pull’ versus ‘Push’ for getting promotion, Dr. Peter concludes: Never stand when you can sit; never walk when you can ride, never Push when you can Pull.
He then tells us how to recognize that one has reached one’s state of incompetence (final placement syndrome) and should one have already risen to one’s state of incompetence suggests ways of attaining health and happiness in this state at zero promotion quotient.
Towards the end of his book he illustrates how to avoid reaching the state of incompetence by practicing various techniques of Creative Incompetence. (I probably practiced Creative Incompetence quite competently and hopefully I am still at my level of competence!)
In conclusion Dr. Peter tries to briefly explore remedies to avoiding life-incompetence which he has elaborated in his follow up book ‘The Peter Prescription’ which is a must-read once you are hooked onto The Peter Principle.
The Peter Principle is a compelling book, written almost forty years ago, and with the flattening of hierarchy and advent of flexible organizational structures and HR practices, it would indeed be worthwhile for young and budding managers to read this book and see to what extent the Peter Principle applies and is relevant in today’s world.
Reviewer: VIKRAM KARVE