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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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July 13, 2009

Incompetence, Avoided?

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Posted by Derek

The world may or may not have been waiting for this, but there's now some theoretical support for the Peter Principle. What relevance does this have to the pharma-biotech industry, you ask? Well, actually, you probably don't ask, because you know just the sort of thing I'm talking about. If you've spent any time in any sort of large organization, you've seen what looks like empirical proof of the Peter Principle already - actually, you may already be picturing specific examples and muttering to yourself.

The classic R&D form of the phenomenon is someone who's capable of doing good research, but just terrible at managing people. You don't have to go very far up the hierarchy to see this one. Sad to say, there are quite a few scientists who reach their "level of incompetence" (to put it in Peterian terms) as soon as they get their first direct report under them. People skills are often not necessary to get through graduate school - in some research groups, they might actually be a handicap - so not every fresh PhD is equipped with managerial skills, to put it mildly. (This topic came up around here a few months ago, in a discussion of whether you want a scientist as a CEO in this business or not).

And the problem, in research as in everywhere else. is that educating a bad manager out of being bad is difficult at best, and impossible at worst. For one thing, a substantial number of poor managers have no idea, no idea at all, that anything might be amiss on their end. And the very deficiencies that keep them from realizing this also help to make them more impervious to attempts to change it. There's empirical support for this, too - often, the first thing that incompetent people are bad at is estimating their own competence.

Now that theorists are reproducing the Peter effects in model systems, that brings up the logical next question: can this help us do anything about the problem? The authors have some suggestions, but I don't see them being implemented any time soon. That's because the Peter Principle, if it's really true, necessarily implies that you should resist the temptation to always promote your best people:

We summarize in Table 1 the percentages of gain or loss obtained for the different strategies applied. These results confirm that, within a game theory-like approach, if one does not know what way of competence transmission is acting in a given organization, as usually one has in the majority of the typical situations, the best promotion strategies seem to be that of choosing a member at random or, at least, that of choosing alternatively, in a random sequence, the best or the worst members. This result is quite unexpected and counterintuitive, since the common sense tendency would be that of promoting always the best member, a choice that, if the Peter hypothesis holds, turns out to be completely wrong.

Try getting that one past the HR department!

Comments (16) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets


1. alig on July 13, 2009 8:42 AM writes...

Most pharma companies have had the chance to eliminate all the poor performers through layoffs over the past few years. Andrew Witty said as much about GSK. But it's amazing, even departments that went through 50% layoffs had to classify some people as low performers during end of the year evaluations. So typically 5-10% of a department is low performers, you eliminate 50% and you don't manage to get those 5-10%. The system is incompetent.

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2. Jonadab the Unsightly One on July 13, 2009 8:47 AM writes...

According to Scott Adams, the Peter Principle is the lesser evil, since under that system even if your boss is bad at his job, at least you know he understands yours. Under the Dilbert Principle, you can get a boss who has no idea what you do.

Personally, I'm glad I work in a small organization. Nobody gets promoted much, but that's because everybody already reports directly to the Director upon hiring in. No middle managers.

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3. metaphysician on July 13, 2009 9:14 AM writes...

#1- is that because they didn't actually lay off their worst performers? Or is it because, structurally, the system is designed such that it will always have 5-10% of its people performing poorly?

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4. DrSnowboard on July 13, 2009 9:23 AM writes...

If andrew witty thinks he only laid off the poor performers and the mediocre, he should take a look at the CV's of some of those he 'rationalised'. My understanding (albeit from the outside) is that the process was more akin to musical chairs - if your TA chair was pulled, you were gone, however many successful teams you'd been in.

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5. CMCguy on July 13, 2009 9:38 AM writes...

Another excellent post as I have observed this phenomena in individuals and organizations both large and small. Being now more in the management side myself I have to continuously evaluate whether I have reached a personal ceiling on competency and/or what I must learn/restructure to not be part of that problem.

One major underlying issue I see is that although most companies claim to have a "two ladder career" system for Scientist vs. Management that are not in reality equal in terms of opportunities and salaries. Leaving the lab/research is often the only way to achieve significant "career/salary growth" and that can lead to mismatched situations. Of course the other aspect that creates disruption is that MBA-mindset dominates with more interest in faddish slogans and implementing "new models" and thus to survive Scientist in Management must either join the mantra or at least not question such things as would be their normal approach to any problem/solution.

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6. Sili on July 13, 2009 9:44 AM writes...

I does make a lot of sense, though, that it's a bad idea to promote people based on how well they do their jobs, rather than on how well they're likely to do the job they're promoted to.

I mean, it's not like my experience as a janitor will be taken into account much now that I'm applying for industry jobs (too stupid and inexperienced for research, I fear, so mainly support and QA/QC). In general people get hired based on what they can do, not on what they might be able to do, right? So why not have jobinterviews for promotions in the same way?

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7. CMCguy on July 13, 2009 9:46 AM writes...

Sorry about the double post.

I did want to add relative to #1 alig's comment that it may be likely the best skill many of those left behind is not technical based but involved competency in "brown nosing" (although that may be too generic a claim).

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8. Lucifer on July 13, 2009 10:24 AM writes...

So why was pharma productivity so high till the late 1980s, but dropped off a cliff after that.

Pharma productivity = ability to discover novel and effective drugs (innovative drugs).

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9. SRC on July 13, 2009 12:27 PM writes...

The problem is that there's no necessary correlation at all between success in the field and success in managing in the field. Quite different skills are involved.

With apologies to non-Americans, consider Walter Alston. His entire major league playing career consisted of one at-bat - in which he struck out - and two fielding chances, in which he made one error. Yet he made the baseball Hall of Fame - as a manager.

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10. David P on July 13, 2009 12:29 PM writes...

Is it not true that the best comedy also has a real element of truth to it? Certainly true here anyway.

It is quite common within the scientific domain because of the difference in skills needed to progress as a scientist individually and as a team leader. Sometimes we should leave business decisions to the business people, though then again, they don't appreciate what has to happen to make the product work (and what effort they are abandoning when it is dropped). For sure, some scientific knowledge is needed at the business end of the company.

I did like some of the solutions proposed in the Wikipedia article. Rather than just not promoting your best people (!), the idea of training them for their new position first is a good one, as is giving an alternative career path for those who don't want a management role but do want to progress their career. The former should be preferred, and those that get slated for training will feel that they are on the way to that coveted promotion.

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11. SteveM on July 13, 2009 1:14 PM writes...

CMCguy hit the nail on the head. The "two ladder" career system has been around for decades but has never really worked. Probably because of the law of large numbers. A manager of can bask in the reflective glory of even one bench scientist in his/her group who hits a discovery home run. But the chances of any solitary chemist stumbling into golden kismet is low.

And managing is different than bench chemistry. If I were senior management, I would have my entire staff take the Myers-Briggs test confidentially. Then have them read some of the temperament profile material available like the book, "Please Understand Me" and given their temperaments, reflect on whether or not they really want a management job. (My temperament tells me no, and I was happy to acknowledge that.)

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12. milkshake on July 13, 2009 5:17 PM writes...

Different groups need different kinds of people to lead them. Overall, it is a lot easier for a scientist to learn how to motivate and lead his people rather than getting a professional manager with degree in business and law and have him develop appreciation of science.

The main difficulty as I see it is with the mechanic, formulaic ways the modern "management theory" tries to impose pretentious pseudo-rational methods (brought over from unrelated fields) into areas where they are not really applicable. Well-functioning research group is a rather delicate system and there are thousand ways to screw it up.

My former boss is a natural-born slave-driver and I remember some of his methods were less-than-subtle. Yet he was quite efficient at getting the maximum output from all his people without causing too much of resentment because he was pragmatic.
He was not a synthetic chemists so he did not understand the details of our work but with chemistry modelling background and industry experience he had enough appreciation for the unexpected problems that happen when making compounds. It was his intense ambition and drive that rubbed on his people, in mostly positive ways - he was constantly bringing new ideas and proposing challenges what could/should be done.

So an ideal boss should be driven and ambitious but he should not be a totally selfish bastard. Whe people work hard to make him famous he needs to take good care of them and protect them. The loyalty has to go both ways.

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13. Mr. Gunn on July 14, 2009 12:41 AM writes...

According to management theory, you get more productivity from people if you can have them doing what they're best at for the most time. (Clever people, these management theorists.) This implies that promoting scientists to management is generally the wrong thing to do. Most scientists are happier and more productive doing science, so the old vision of career advancement meaning a promotion to management only seems like a good idea if you are a manager and naturally want to advance you career that way. Ideally, they'd be separate tracks, with better scientists working on harder problems with larger budgets and better managers leading more people.

You learn in graduate school to be intolerant of sloppy experiments and critical of shoddy data. You learn how to pick holes in arguments and see flaws in theories, and pointing those flaws out is seen as your duty and responsibility. Your job is to come up with good ideas and execute the correctly, and if it fails one day, you get to come back and try again the next day, and the next week or month, if necessary. Worrying about how to make money from your work is seen as strange and unnecessary.

In contrast, working in industry, whether on a team or managing people, you have to put up with a wide variety of dumb ideas and sloppy experiments. Being too critical just makes you look like you're not a team player. If your idea doesn't work first shot, or even if it works first shot then one of the less skilled people subsequently screws it up, it's no good to anyone.

The two roles are opposite:
A good scientist knows he's smart and isn't insecure about that. He wants to find the truth, and do the technically correct thing, even if it takes longer or results in a temporary hit to productivity. If you're wrong, he'll tell you so and explain why.

A good manager knows his team is productive, he's not insecure about that. He wants the work to get done, even if it's not the technically correct thing to do. He doesn't care who's wrong or right, as long as the unit stays productive.

If you want to push a scientist's buttons, don't put down his intelligence. Suggest his work doesn't have lasting importance.

If you want to push a businessman's buttons, don't belittle his business plan. Use big words to explain, pedantically and at length, theories that show why he's wrong.

The hardest thing for a scientist becoming a manager to learn is that you have to make people feel like they're smart, instead of pointing out the thousand obvious mistakes one academic colleague would point out to another.

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14. Pathi on July 14, 2009 7:37 PM writes...

Here is one book I know which might be useful to scientists tansitioning into management-Managing Scientists: Leadership Strategies in Scientific Research by Alice M. Sapienza (,descCd-tableOfContents.html)

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15. carras on July 16, 2009 2:35 PM writes...

As a corollary I'd like to add the "kick on the pants upstairs" effect. That's what you get when you have (over)reached your Peter's apex and there's need to get you out of the way, but firing you is not an option. You usually get a better salary and not real work to do.

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16. Ben Buchanan on July 17, 2009 8:46 AM writes...

I think the Dunning-Kruger effect can be a good thing sometimes! It protects us from hating ourselves. I'm not sure if i would want to knoow all my short falls!
Here is a good video about it:

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