The Peter Principle

By David

In some part of the United States, evolution is not a word to be used in polite company. These souls cling to the idea that we are all the result of a week of celestial work a few thousand years ago. It is all nonsense, of course. We are in fact the partially completed product of a process first observed by Robert Darwin in the 1850 and called the Theory of Evolution. He did not use my words, but he did provide the foundation for the idea that in evolution, systems tend to develop up to the limit of their adaptive competence.

Had Darwin lived to 1960 he would have approved the light-hearted extensions of his idea proposed by Dr. Laurence Peter and Dr. William Corcoran and called the Peter Principle. This principle holds that in a hierarchy, competent individuals are promoted. Eventually they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent and there they remain; fixed by the system at their “level of incompetence”. Peter’s Corollary says that “in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties”.

In his work on Corrective Action Programs in nuclear power plants, Dr. Corcoran noted the Peter Principle at work. He observed that “anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails”. He used as examples vacuum cleaners used as aspirators and administrative devises such as “Safety Evaluations” used for managing change. Human beings have the bad habit, he said, of using what has worked before, even when it has exceeded its effective scope.

I guess if it is possible to observe all this in a Nuclear Power Plant, it would be unusual not to find examples of the Peter Principle at swim meets. This past weekend I attended the Speedo International Age Group Meet in Fort Lauderdale. This meet has reached its level of incompetence. It shows many signs of being something that has worked and is now being “used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails”.

However before listing examples of what I mean, it is important to point out that there is still much to admire. Two years ago, Swimwatch praised the meet’s organization, its size, the officials, the helpful office staff, the use of two pools, the Coach’s hospitality, the display of results, the announcer and the organization of time-trials and scratching. We called the meet a “bloody beauty” and the label was well earned.

Much of that, in fact, probably all of it is still true: even to the extent that we received a reminder email after the closing date when our team’s entries had gone missing. Some things are done very well. There are however some additional features that are spoiling a good thing. Let me give you some examples.

The meet information said the entry procedure was being altered. Instead of paying entry fees in the normal way we would all pay a “deposit” of $40 and the outstanding balance of the fees would be settled at the meet. What this meant was that if the entry fees came to more than $40 you would pay the extra but no refund would be paid if the entry fees were less than $40. In our case this meant that four of our swimmers spent $170 to enter six races and one time-trial; an average of $28.33 per race and that is usury. That price does not include the $5 for each parent to get into the pool or the $5 for a programme. In entry fees and these other direct pool related costs each race cost our guys $43.33. That probably doesn’t satisfy the test of encouraging wide participation in the sport. I know of a hundred people that could not afford that sort of elite pricing. It almost certainly qualifies the meet as the planet’s most expensive as well as one of its biggest.

The pool deck was badly policed. The place was a zoo. I understand the emergency services were called to a sick spectator and were not at all pleased about their access being blocked by a sardine tin of spectators. I don’t blame the police for being upset. In a meet this size access to the pool deck needs to be restricted and enforced. Failure to do so on this occasion made proper coaching difficult and enjoyment impossible.

The provision of warm up space on Friday was inadequate. There is a perfectly good diving well that could have been used for warming up. Instead it was occupied by a dozen or so divers while 1000 swimmers struggled to warm up and down in one side lane in each pool. It must have been possible to take the diving somewhere else for a morning. Imagine the scene, five warm up swimmers per meter at a cost of $43.33 per race. Someone was doing all right and it wasn’t the swimmers.

It could be that this meets organizers need to heed Dr. Corcoran – “anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails”. On this occasion too many failures spoilt one of the country’s best swim meets.