Incompetence, Part II (or, Slightly Less Cranky)

Has everyone read the Peter Principle? It’s one of those books that explains a lot. I heartily recommend getting it, a couple of friends, and a fifth of rum in the same room. Take turns reading it out loud. Take a sip when you recognize someone you know, and do a shot when you recognize yourself.

The book boils down to this: People rise to their level of incompetence. If you are very good at making socks, you will be promoted to the supervisor of sock making. If you are a terrible supervisor (and you might be, even if you’re the best sock maker ever; the required skills are very different), you will be the supervisor forever, totally ineligible for promotion but unlikely to be allowed to return to the assembly line. If by some stroke of luck you happen to be a great supervisor, you’ll be promoted to factory supervisor, where you supervise teams of supervisors. The skills to manage managers are not exactly the same as managing workers, but throw the baby in, maybe he can swim. And so on, and so forth. The reason people rise to their level of incompetence and stay there is because their supervisors have already hit their own competency ceilings.

The rest of the book covers apparent exceptions that are not really exceptions – lateral promotions, the creation of new levels of management, and so on.

The absurdity of this structure tends to explain why some of the better leaders DON’T work their way up from the bottom. But I digress.

The principle is pessimistic, slightly exaggerated, and considers intelligence and desire to be irrelevant. But there is some truth to the idea. One of the most common reasons for apparent management failure comes from promoting people who were great at their jobs, and asking them to teach what they know to others… without training to do that teaching, support, or so much as a useful pamphlet. If the company does have a training structure in house for newly fledged managers, often you’ll find a great deal of time is wasted on platitudes and encouraging slogans, rather than tried-and-true techniques.

In a job I had back in the nineties, I, and a number of other women identified as Future Leaders (you could hear the capital letters when people said that) were sent off to a training course. About halfway through, as I sat among the paper scraps, I thought that I would rather know how to deliver bad news with sensitivity than make a “Collage of Myself” out of old Good Housekeeping magazines. And – big shock coming – male Future Leaders taken under the wing of an older manager got promoted much more often than those of us who went to craft day to the tune of fifteen thousand dollars. The only thing I was fit to supervise after my special training was an afterschool day camp.

There are techniques to management. For instance, there is a knack for delivering bad news such that the recipient thanks you for it. The two best bosses I’ve had to date possessed this knack. With one of them, I even knew he was DOING it while it was happening, and I still couldn’t resist the warm fuzzy feeling washing over me. I’d get out of his office, still smiling, and get halfway down the hall before I fully realized I’d been had. Now, that? Is manager gold.

That sort of thing is difficult to train in a workshop setting, with handouts from the well-meaning HR person. Useful skills require demonstration, mentorship, and support.

It is my experience that gaming studios, when they suffer from the Peter Principle, suffer more than other types of companies. (Fortunately, when the studios do not suffer, they tend to soar – gaming people are adept at finding clever solutions and building interesting tools. More on that at the end.) This is because we are engaged in an essentially creative business. The best creative writers, who come up with quests and backstories and character biographies, are rarely the sort of people that enjoy scheduling meetings. I hesitate to make a statement about coders, as I have always found them to be charming and personable, but the very best of them find the minutia of management to be… difficult. Finally, the best world builders, when promoted to supervisor, will usually throw their hands up and wail “But I never have time to BUILD anymore!” within a week of their promotion.

There are exceptions, of course. But those exceptions are because their ability is so profound they cannot help but inspire and guide. Move them too far away from the creative process, and you lose everything that makes them good. If they don’t fail, it’s because they have a special ability – that of identifying what support people they need in order to shore up their own weaknesses. And even then, the “complementary forces” technique breaks down when the studio grows too large.

Kind of makes building a successful team look like building a house of cards, eh?

The solutions, creamed from other kinds of companies that have avoided drama and teeth-gnashing, revolve around transparency, open communication, anonymous feedback, and self-awareness. Training is also a huge part of the equation. Companies that pay more than lip service to promoting people (and preparing those people for success) tend to identify managers with good techniques, and having those successful managers work one on one with the new managers. The mentor is not part of the review process for the new people – freeing the new ones to be candid and to seek advice when necessary.

It all starts with the acknowledgment that the skills required of managers are not the same as those required of front line personnel. As long as you’re sitting around believing that someone highly competent at one task is an all-around superior being, you cannot make progress.

Game studios are in a unique position to take this kind of competency building to new heights. I have worked in many different kinds of companies, but only in gaming was I comfortable enough to call up a peer at another company and say, “I’m really struggling with this – how did YOU do it?” Only in gaming was I approached by coworkers who wanted to learn one of my techniques. And only in gaming could I approach my minions, asking for and getting process designs beyond my own ability without sacrificing my credibility.

From the most visible evangelist to the rawest CSR, game company employees tend to be (in my opinion) more creative, more passionate, and more devoted to the company’s success. With our ability to create living, evolving worlds from scratch, and all their associated systems, we could collectively come up with workflow managers and Peter Principle avoidance techniques that could change the world. Some studios seem to be on their way.



  1. Beno said,

    June 7, 2007 at 9:27 am

    Bee more funny! :p

  2. Sanya Weathers said,

    June 7, 2007 at 10:12 am

    Laugh. Not everything can be funny.

    You usually need specific flavor to be funny. But with the last two posts, specific, I took out – the internet is generally very bad at making assumptions, and my concern was that there would be assumptions made about some people of whom I am very fond.

    I’m working on a lighter post now 🙂

  3. Baby Eating Octopus said,

    June 7, 2007 at 11:56 am

    I don’t know, I find incompetence to be hilarious. It’s one of those train wrecks you can watch happen, see it before happening, and (with any luck) know when not be there when it happens. I have to deal with incompetence and ignorance on a daily basis, and (I guess after working as long as I have) I just find it a quirky and funny thing.

    When I’ve got to visit a client that has been telling people what to do for twenty odd years and then basically have to hold their hand through a lesson using the software they just bought from us, a funny thing always happens. They get irate when they make a mistake. And I don’t just mean “Oh damn it! Why isn’t this working” I mean getting angry at the computer, getting angry at me, and getting angry whenever I try to tell them their mistakes.

    A lot of the old guard are attached to their old ways, and technology is slowly making them incompetent. Not any fault of their own, and at least they’re trying to cure it by hiring us for some in-house training. But the fact that they’re becoming incompetent and ignorant makes them so upset that they lash out and act like children who’ve not had their nap. Again, not really their fault, but incompetence is built into jobs sometimes, and often set on a 10 year time delay. A shipping manager might be great at managing a few dozen crates of product on paper, but change paper to binary and suddenly they can’t do their job.

    In then end, I get to have a chuckle, die a little inside and drink my gin to satiate the death throws of my soul. But it’s alright… I get to laugh 🙂

  4. Big Hal said,

    June 7, 2007 at 1:41 pm

    I read the Peter Principle when I was I was in junior high, not sure why except that I read just about everything I came across back then. Looking back on my career I see that it is so very true. I’ve known plenty of folks who have been over promoted, to put it kindly. I was one myself, I got promoted from sr tech to manager of the department. I truely sucked as a manager, my worst failing was that I couldn’t stop being senior tech. So I got to spend my nights helping troubleshoot major outages and my days arguing with the vender and the architecture group about why the solution was not going to work as delivered. In my spare time I had to deal with the day to day challenges of 13 people staffing a 24X7 NOC. One day it dawned on me that maybe having the dry heaves every day before work wasn’t normal and I found a job at startup that let me go back to doing what I was good at. My experience made me a little more tolerant of the incompetent I think, because whenever I get to feeling superior I remember running that fucking NOC and how much I sucked at a job that I should never been given.

  5. blachawk said,

    June 7, 2007 at 4:51 pm

    The US military very much believes in this. As far as careers go, it’s get promoted or get politely told to leave. In the Navy, Officers can only be passed over for promotion twice before they are retired and enlisted men have a set timeline.

  6. Guildrum said,

    June 7, 2007 at 7:51 pm

    I got the chance to hear an exchange between one of the best labor managers I’ve ever seen and a fellow employee once. It went something like this (heavilly abridged):

    Manager: “I want you to perform your duties so that you come up with result X before result Y.”

    Employee: “You don’t know what you’re talking about! You can’t do my job as well as I can!”

    Manager: “Of course I can’t do your job as well as you can! Hell, I can’t do your job at all! That’s why the company hired you to do your job! However, I trust you to be creative and reliable enough to give me result X before result Y.”

    That manager almost always got exactly what he wanted out of his people.

    Later, a director position came open that this manager was directly in line for. Everyone asked him if he was going to put in for it, and all acted shocked when he replied no. He claimed he knew what his limits were.

    Now that I’ve worked for this manager for a few years, I know that the statement “I can’t do your job at all” was a bald-faced lie. He had been doing that type of work all his life. His method of managing labor, though, was to make everyone who worked for him, that was capable of it, into a “go-to” guy. It was just his way of instilling a sense of self-reliance into that particular employee. One of the most important jobs of a manager, he says, is to set people up to succeed.

  7. MrUbiquitousness said,

    June 7, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    I’m lucky enough to work for a company that is trying very hard to get it right. I haven’t read PP yet, so that’s my next stop! I love the inspiration, advice and anecdotes, so thank you 🙂

  8. Solok said,

    June 7, 2007 at 8:13 pm

    I like this post. I haven’t read the book, but I defined identify with the promotion tendencies you described. A few months ago I was “promoted” to a manager. I knew going in that the skills that made people respect my technical abilities weren’t going to be the ones I needed to succeed as a manager. However the difference is my management knows that is has given me support and training and precious time to develop.

    That’s what’s missing in a lot of places. Fine promote the gal or guy who’s your best producer if you see raw talent, however cultivate that talent – don’t throw them in the dark and expect them to know how to motivate, reward, and get the best out of people.

    I’m a firm believer that the skills that make people good managers can be learned but most good leaders have those skills as part of their personalities.

    Blackhawk – I agree to a point – however promotion is based on longevity and testing. In addition, they provide lots of management training, including classroom and on the job training. Of course after certain ranks politics comes into play, however that’s probably the case in most organizations.

  9. Apache said,

    June 7, 2007 at 9:03 pm

    I think that rewarding hard work and talent is the cornerstone of advancement. Obviously, the best workers aren’t always the best managers, but it wouldn’t be fair to the best workers who turn out to be the good managers, to never consider them for the jobs. Having two pools of people groomed to be either workers or manager sounds like Soviet propaganda. 🙂

  10. Psychochild said,

    June 8, 2007 at 4:46 am

    Of course, it’s important to remember that most general jobs have a wide variety of “standard” responsibilities, and not every person has to be superb at each one. As a developer, I write very good documents, I can write clean code, but I suck at creating UIs, for example. I pray for a good UI designer to be able to help me if required.

    In my current gig as a lead designer, I consider myself exceptional at organizing the design of an online game, pretty good at organizing the designers under me and recognizing their talents, but I need to focus more on keeping records and submitting information to my supervisors. Overall, though, I think I’m doing my job well (and I’m still getting paid, which means someone agrees with me, or they’re too lazy/incompetent to fire me. 😉

    The most important aspect for a manager, or for any game developer really, is the desire to learn and improve. As soon as you think you know everything, you have stopped learning and you are slowly becoming part of the problem. In a fast-moving industry, you have to keep learning. Of course, it’s useful for everyone involved to realize that there will be a learning process for all jobs, and to keep things loose enough to allow for this learning.

    My thoughts,

  11. Kemor said,

    June 8, 2007 at 5:20 am

    This has been a problem since work became work 🙂

    The way a working career works, usually, is that at some point, if you’re good at something, promoting you is a reward. The problem is that, as you mentioned, while you care and like what you do NOW, you may not like what you will do THEN, after the promotion.

    This is true in CS (some people just like being in contact with customers) but also for writers, designers, devs (and true in shitload of jobs out of the gaming industry too). It only affects people really loving their job though, some people will love managing (or whatever the promotion is) as well.

    Some possible solution, but it’s quite underheard of, would be not to promote but just to raise salary or responsabilities a bit. The guy (gal) would still be doing whatever he/she likes but would get more cash or would have more “say” in the process of things. Of course, this doesn’t usually go well as you might have a level 1 employee ending up with more $ than the new manager 🙂

  12. Sanya Weathers said,

    June 8, 2007 at 8:09 am

    This’ll never happen, of course. But, idle question, just for laughs – why couldn’t there be a situation where the employee makes more than the manager? Especially in the more creative fields?

    Say I ran my own shop, and I had a quest writer (or a coder or an artist) whose work was so sublime that it never needed to be redone. And he did it really fast, too, whatever it was. I don’t want to worship this person as a god, or he’ll turn into a little self-entitled dickweed. (Oh, goody, I can’t fire him AND I can’t stand him, lovely!) But I don’t dare waste a millisecond of his precious gift on management meetings, salary reviews, or hand-holding the less qualified.

    Why not pay him more than his manager? Management is, as I said, a set of skills that can be taught (and I should have added “with the temperment to learn”). If anyone could be taught to be a brilliant coder, there would be a crapload more MMO startups out there, that’s for damn sure.

  13. Khan said,

    June 8, 2007 at 10:36 am

    Interesting entry, Sanya. Sadly, not enough companies recognize the need for training their managers just like they need to train their employees AND the people appointing new managers will also need training themselves at some point (learning new technologies, etc). The best companies I have worked for have included training as one of their most important values (and have followed up with actual action). The worst company I worked for talked about training but gave us “team-building” instead. Like walking across a rope bridge has anything to do with building databases or making me better at building software on a team. I guess, if they wanted to skimp on putting in a new sidewalk and I had to take a rope bridge to my desk, I’d be all set.

    As I was reading your post, it got me to wondering if the attitudes at gaming companies had to do with the relative newness of the industry? I work in a relatively new industry also. At least at my company, everyone is engaged in the struggle for success. The prevailing attitude is: we haven’t made it yet, but we’re trying. The result is that people that enter management tend to get training and help from their new management peers to be successful. Everyone is part of the struggle, so give people meaningful training for their jobs. Just because someone is a manager now doesn’t mean they won’t need help with their new job. I’ve also seen entrenched managers given the boot because they couldn’t do their jobs and rejected help. Compare this to another company I worked for that had the attitude that we had already made it, now let’s just hang on. Managers got no useful training and were terrible (but could walk rope bridges like Navy SEALs). I wonder if “growth mode” verses “caretaker mode” effects how well or poorly managers get selected and trained.

    Just some random thoughts.

  14. Big Hal said,

    June 8, 2007 at 10:46 am

    The company I worked for actually did something like what you are suggesting Sanya. Sadly for me the people I worked for were all outside hires themselves and weren’t aware of it. In a fair number of the very technical groups there were manager titled positions that were actually senior tech positions. So in say SS7 translations they had an SS7 Translations Manager who worked for the Manager of SS7 translations. Both were in the same pay band and depending on seniority and other factors either could be paid more than the other but the SS7 Transalations Manager was not in management and didn’t have supervisory responsibilities but instead functioned as the highest technical escalation point, SME and mentor for the group. By the time I learned that there was a difference between manager and manager of it was too late.

  15. =j said,

    June 8, 2007 at 11:34 am

    I have worked for companies that nominally had separate “Tecnical” and “Manager” promotion tracks. Neither really implemented them very well (imho) and neither had mechanisms for the managee to make less than the manager. If it were my toy train^W^W company, I would allow for this. And to any manager that complained, I would say, “Well, she is the best in her field. I want her compensation to reflect the value of her work. I’m sure as hell not going to promote her out of her job because HR thinks managers need to make more than technical people. Don’t get me wrong, you are a good manager. But are you really the best in your feild?”

  16. Zubon said,

    June 8, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    Game design and planning are separate skill sets. Even if the wonder developer can code and make concept art and write stories and run efficient meetings and train and make delicious cheesecake s/he cannot do all of them at once. Get yourself some planning people, not just some coders or game designers who don’t even want to be managers.

  17. Zubon said,

    June 9, 2007 at 6:21 am

    In this context, I should probably have said “organization” rather than “planning.” Organizing people, business processes, etc.

  18. Apache said,

    June 9, 2007 at 10:39 pm

    Paying highly skilled artisans, programmers and designers an equal to, or greater amount of money is also an alternative. Keeps the gene pools seperate.

  19. jason said,

    June 14, 2007 at 5:11 pm

    Sanya, at the end of your post you talk about the industry being more open to asking for help, and more open to letting skilled people do their job well without taking offense at the fact that they might be better at something than you are. Can you comment on the age ranges of the people you’re thinking of when you say that? I’d guess that the gaming industry has a younger average age than, for instance, textbook publishing. Is that a generational thing in your opinion?

  20. No.6 said,

    June 15, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    “and a fifth of rum in the same room. Take turns reading it out loud. Take a sip when you recognize someone you know, and do a shot when you recognize yourself.”

    There isn’t enough rum in existence to handle that game played amongst people who design or code for state government projects…

  21. Michael Chui said,

    June 18, 2007 at 5:36 pm

    Sanya asked, “why couldn’t there be a situation where the employee makes more than the manager? Especially in the more creative fields?”

    I’d say that the reason is because managerial results are undefinable, much like a teacher’s salary. The similarity is actually pretty surprising: if you compare a student’s “pay” (negative tuition) with a teacher’s, I would guess that the proportion would be about the same as the worker to manager ratio.

    Honestly, what should really happen is that teams should be paid together, and they should divide it amongst themselves, where the team includes the managers, too. It would seriously increase how aware people are of others’ contributions, I think.

  22. Philip Ripper said,

    June 24, 2007 at 12:03 am

    “People rise to their level of incompetence.” I wonder what this says about me? I rose all the way to unemployed and hit my ceiling. Does anyone know where I can find recess?

    (Six odd years so far on dissability for Agoraphobia. I’m a mmorpg specialist of the opposite sort! Trap someone in a room for a decade with a bunch of computer parts and a phone–later dsl line–and see what happens. Social experiment on government cheese.)

    love & diatribe

  23. Brent said,

    October 1, 2007 at 6:23 am

    Come work in the Alberta Oil industry Sanya. Here the workers make far more than the managers. Workers make 80 to 200k a year, managers make 50 to 150k a year. The problem here is that good people never want to join management, as they will take a pay cut as a result, so the managers end up being those that have to stop working in the field as a result of personal issues.

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