Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Peter Pyramid

Been reading an interesting book this week – “The Peter Pyramid,” by Laurence Peter. I’ve written about his first book, “The Peter Principle,” before on this blog.

In Pyramid, Peter proposes that as society advances, our propensity to develop hierarchies that protect themselves with busy work is, in part, what’s killing our society. He points out that companies that start small with a customer-focused base can, over time, evolve into companies that are more interested in preserving inner peace and structure than in serving customers, who provide the money to keep the company going but constantly interrupt the peaceful, non-productive flow that hierarchies tend to nurture.

To quote from a story he writes of such a company: Back near the beginning, Andy was in the grocery business. He did all the paperwork during the infrequent quiet periods in his thriving business. As his business developed into a working bureaucracy, he had less and less to do with groceries and more and more to do with paperwork. Most of the people who work for him now are not in the grocery business, but are rule makers, rule enforcers, and rule followers. The rules and regulations have become more important than the people and the products.

In some ways, I can feel this happening to Uncharted. Elsewhere in the book, Peter writes about companies that become so proficient at making rules, writing memos and status reports and such that they forget to maintain proficiency in what got them into the business in the first place. In Uncharted’s case, it’s getting to the basics of sharing our love of writing about our adventures with the rest of the world. I haven’t written an Uncharted story in a long time. Jason has pointed this out, and, at first, I felt pretty defensive about it. (He pointed out our wavering from what we love.) But he may be right. We’re in that nebulous, evolving stage.

So there’s something we need to talk about. I see Uncharted in a lot of what he writes:

(Page 96) Bureaucrats are not lazy do-nothing; they are busy people. They attend meetings, write memoranda, plan budgets, organize and reorganize departments, and do many of the other things that administration of thriving enterprises do; but they do them with a different purpose.

They write memos because writing memos demonstrates that they are busy, and because once written the memos become documented evidence that the writer has been busy. Bureaucrats attend meetings because doing so gives the appearance of importance and useful activity, even if meaningful action is seldom taken. Rushing from meeting to meeting, and particularly traveling great distances to attend meetings, gives the impression that participation is of great importance.

This comes a week after I wrote en editorial plan and a memo, and traveled to Logan for a meeting that, really, I didn’t have to attend, but that I wanted to attend so I would be seen attending. I feel soooooooooo stupid right now.

Not that Peter says that everything that hierarchies do is bad. He points out that many things, such as the shipment of good throughout the world, the development of jet aircraft, and the invention of the ballpoint pen had to, necessarily, go through their stages of complexity, but in the end, these things are saving vast amounts of time and money. So I suppose what we need to do is grasp the good in what we’re able to do, but throw out the bad, ensuring that we don’t develop a pyramid that’s inverted, like the ones Peter preaches to avoid.

No comments: