Today is the birthday of Laurence J. Peter (1919-1990), the author of the book The Peter Principle. Peter was an education professor at the University of Southern California and the University of British Columbia, but he became famous in the field of business when he published The Peter Principle in 1969. The book is full of case histories that illustrate why every organization seems to fall short of reaching maximum productivity and profit. His explanation relates to the corporate mentality that promotes productive workers upward until they achieve positions beyond their ability to perform competently.
Peter’s insights into the organizational structures of businesses were so well-received that The Peter Principle has gone well beyond just the title of a popular book; it has entered the language as an adage, immortalizing its creator. The American Heritage Dictionary records the following definition of the Peter Principle:
The theory that employees within an organization will advance to their highest level of competence and then be promoted to and remain at a level at which they are incompetent (1).
Laurence Peter is not alone in the world of eponymous adages (a proverbial insight that is named for a person). If you’ve ever been a victim of Murphy’s Law, for example, you know that certain rules for living have the signature of the person who first identified them.
Today’s Challenge: An Adage by Any Other Name
See if you can match up each of the eponymous adages listed below with its correct definition:
Stigler’s Law of Eponymy
- Explanations should never multiply causes without necessity. When two explanations are offered for a phenomenon, the simplest full explanation is preferable.
- If anything can go wrong, it will.
- The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management.
- It [a task] always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.
- Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
- We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.
- No scientific discovery, not even Stigler’s law, is named after its original discoverer (2).
Quotation of the Day: A pessimist is a man who looks both ways before crossing a one-way street. –Laurence J. Peter
Answers: 1. Ockham’s Razor 2. Murphy’s Law, ascribed to Major Edward A. Murphy, Jr. 3. Dilbert Principle, coined by Scott Adams, author of the comic strip Dilbert. 4. Hofstadter’s Law, named after Douglas Hofstadter. 5. Parkinson’s Law, coined by C. Northcote Parkinson. 6. Amara’s Law, proposed by Roy Amara. 7. Stigler’s law of eponymy
1 – American Heritage Dictionary
2 – List of adages named after people