There is No Them

Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

Avoiding the Peter Principle: Embracing the Dip

with 3 comments

I first learned about the Peter Principle when I was just a kid. For most of my life I believed that the core of the Peter Principle – that one rises to their level of incompetence – seemed an inescapable conclusion to any ambitious person’s career. This bothered me greatly; that someday I too may rise to a position that I am incompetent for seemed like a cop out, and I vowed to not let this happen. But how?

An early lesson in how you avoid the Peter Principle came from my last couple of years of doing competitive speech and debate in college. I had, for most of my debate career, never had to work really hard but often did very well. With little or no preperation I would often be very competitive. As I grew more expereinced I more and more found myself getting into the semi-finals or finals of even large debate tournaments. But winning outright seemed to elude me. During my final year competing, a fellow competitor pulled me aside to give me some feedback. The feedback was painful to hear, but once I fully internalized it I understood what I needed to do to finally be more than just a strong competitor, but to actually win outright.

The feedback was as simple as this – my success came from a natural ability, and not from hard work. If I insisted on utilizing only my natural ability I would never break out of the current pattern of success. I needed to find a different way to approach the whole thing, and work hard; and only then might I get a different outcome.

But no, Hard Work is not the way to beat the Peter Principle. The meaningful feedback was that I needed to change the way I did things. This seemed counter-intuitive; my natural ability got me this far, if I just pushed it a bit more wouldn’t it help me get farther? As it turns out, the answer was no. Instead of continuing to rely on what had made me as successful as I had become, I needed to find a new way, because only a new way would help me get better.

Finding a new way to do anything means, that for the short term at least, you get worse at the thing you are trying to do. Its enescapable. This drop in performance is what I call The Dip. This is The Dip you must embrace. Fear of The Dip causes you to stagnate, and stagnation is bad.

The Dip is the reduction in performance you expereince while learning a new way of doing an old thing, when the old way was no longer helping you get better.

The Dip is how I believe you avoid the fate of the Peter Principle. Before you stop growing, before you stop getting better at what you are doing, recognize that your current approach is resulting in less and less benefit for the same effort. If you don’t face the fact you are not getting better you are doomed to rising to a level where your current methods will be insufficient.

Finding a new way to do what you already do well is necessary; finding that new way while your old way is still pretty good is the secret (keep the dip small, keep the rate of growth high).


Written by joshuahoward

November 14, 2008 at 11:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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3 Responses

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  1. I just read through your blog pages and I am amazed at the insight you have amassed over the years. Considering that I am in the middle of a corporate leadership class, I think that I will have some interesting points to raise in our next session. What I think is funny is how much of what you have written about is promoted at the corporate level but never really implemented.

    A situation to consider is how to manage a team that you cannot create. In my profession, most project leads cannot hire or select their team members. You get whoever is assigned to you. What I try to do is get the most out of each team member while encouraging them to learn how to do better. As long as the project is meeting the agreed milestones then this approach works reasonably well.

    Knowing when to intervene and just let the group go is a fine art that must be practiced like any skill.

    I look forward to more of your thoughts on this topic.


    November 19, 2008 at 3:26 pm

  2. Isn’t this the “Tiger Woods” principle? I’ve been amazed at how that man takes apart the best golf game in the world only to make it even better, and at the patience and tolerance he shows with his reduced performance while he works through the changes.

    Dave Rohrl

    March 16, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    • I use Tiger Woods as the sports example of this every time I discuss with folks – its great to see you connect that even without me mentioning it in the post!


      March 17, 2009 at 10:50 am

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