The User Pool - 7. The Peter Principle
While staring down the barrel of Mulhausen’s smoking gun, I both earnestly and gravely wondered if I could, with any sensible odds, count on his utter incompetence and devastatingly obtuse brain to annul this temporary insanity and somehow save me from sharing the CIO’s fate. Nothing at work ever seemed genuine or even tangible, so the strange thing was, this moment, the moment Mulhausen shot the CIO in Weekly Staff and turned the gun on me, was one of the most genuine moments I had experienced in a very long time, and I somehow wasn’t afraid. Maybe I was just tired. Maybe I was tired of living the artificial existence I had been living at work and home in what seemed like perpetuity, and this was subconsciously my welcomed escape. After all, fear and relief do not coexist. Or maybe I just saw, with explicit, undeniable clarity, the situation for what it was. Mulhausen was suddenly holding his own dick in his hand instead of a gun. And since he already fired once, maybe I thought it was too soon for him to get it up and fire again. For the average, non-professional killer, I had to assume there was some sort of refractory period to process the homicide, especially your first time. So, there I sat with Fessler’s warm blood soaking into my shirt and tie, the murderer in front of me, weapon pointed directly at my face, and I just calmly gazed into Mulhausen’s glassy, impotent, jittery eyes. And whether I embraced the consequences or not, these listless, wilting windows to his soul told me that the Peter Principle had kicked in and he had already reached his level of incompetence as a killer.
Simply put, the Peter Principle is: Anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it causes a disaster. From a business perspective, every employee tends to be promoted to his/her level of incompetence. You may be a talented and effectual manager, structured and detail-oriented which is befitting your role, but once you get promoted to director and need to take a broader view of things, you become uncomfortable, clumsy and even inept in the role, and alas, you have reached your limit and will rise no more. This is the Peter Principle.
Most of the executives in my Company were working at their level of incompetence. Which may prompt the question: How did we continue to achieve growth and success at this Company? The answer: the Company ran itself. Licensing revenue is based on the royalties you collect from those who are actually doing the work: the Licensees. If the brand was strong and the Licensees did their job competently, we required very little competence on our side.
While most executives were operating at a very high degree of incompetence, Mulhausen was operating at a higher degree of incompetence than anyone else. He might have been a smarter man if he wasn't so insecure and constantly drowning in his own swirling, murky, snuff-colored cesspool of despair. But his insecurities drove his decisions. If I explained why one of his flimsier decisions would lead to failure, he became ferociously adamant that he made the correct decision. If I agreed with one of his more plausible decisions, he became skittishly doubtful that he had made the correct decision. And if I went a step further and said, "I was thinking the same thing," he reversed his decision immediately. At least I knew exactly how to get what I wanted.
As with all successful executives at my Company, Mulhausen knew very little about his field of expertise. Unlike all successful executives at my Company, he did not depend on his staff, who did have the expertise, to help him make decisions. Instead, he justified his decisions by speaking about Widgets.
Mulhausen believed anything could be explained with widgets, which are pretend products usually used to illustrate business complexities in college. He used pretend products to validate his incompetent real decisions about real products that had real consequences. For example, when I asked him why he didn't approve developer licenses for the latest development technology, he said:
"If we make blue widgets and red widgets, but it's more cost effective to produce older green widgets, we're going to need to make some production changes."
"I hope that doesn't somehow mean you're advocating that we use the outdated technology."
"Did I say that?" He asked.
"You didn't say anything," I said.
"I didn't say anything about technology."
"You said something about widgets."
"And what is a widget?"
I sighed at the impending dread approaching. “We need developer licenses which exist. You’re talking about widgets which don’t exist.”
“Just because something doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean it’s not real.”
“That’s the exact definition of something that’s not real,” I said.
“What’s a green widget?” He asked.
“Then why do you need a red widget?”
“I don’t. I need developer licenses.”
“Imagine you work for a manufacturing company...”
“And you could produce green widgets twice as fast as you could produce red widgets, and at half the price—do you know what your profit margin would be?”
“Zero, because nobody buys widgets because they don’t exist.”
“Nor do you work at a manufacturing company, so why are you worried about widgets?”
“I’m not. You are.”
“I’m illustrating a point.”
“Which I don’t get.”
“That’s because you know nothing about manufacturing.”
“Because I don’t work for a manufacturing company; I work for a consumer products company and support the business with current technology which is why I need to buy developer licenses for the new software development tools.”
“You’ve lost me. What does that have to do with widgets?”
I went to Fessler and told him that Mulhausen wouldn't approve new developer licenses, although he would approve old green widgets.
“What the hell is a widget?” Fessler said.
“It’s something they produce in manufacturing,” I said.
“Used for what?”
“No sir, because it doesn’t exist.”
“They produce something in manufacturing that doesn’t exist?”
“Yes, all sorts of widgets. Green ones, red ones, blue ones.”
“Why on God’s green Earth would they produce something that doesn’t exist?”
“To illustrate a point. That’s my understanding.”
Fessler pondered the thought. “So, they do this in manufacturing...”
“Yes, but what I need are developer licenses. The cost is minimal, but Mulhausen still won’t approve. That’s why I’ve come to you.”
“If they can produce something in manufacturing that doesn’t exist to illustrate a point, why can’t we?” Fessler announced with magnanimous self-aggrandizement.
I was still not seeing the light but only the insanity of these two men who both seemed obsessed with widgets. But I went along out of childish curiosity. “What would we produce?”
“Software,” he said, now lapping his slender lips like a husky. “We’ll produce software that will do absolutely everything the business requires with a UI a child could use. We’ll promote it as if it will solve everyone’s problems. In fact, there won’t be a need for any other software in this Company because our new application will cover every use case anyone could ever conceive.”
“Even though it doesn’t exist,” I confirmed.
“And what will we call it?”
“The Automated Retail Sales Executive System.”
“And what point will we be illustrating with this new software that doesn’t exist?”
“It will be the most perfect piece of software anyone could have ever developed and delivered,” he said, eyes ablaze. “And those sons of bitches will still complain about it!”
We rolled out the new software system ARSES, which didn’t exist, and everyone loved it. There were no complaints because the system had no bugs and worked seamlessly without interrupting any existing business processes or legacy systems. Both Fessler and Mulhausen were praised for the flawless implementation. While Fessler felt sullen and defeated because he was being applauded for the successful implementation of a perfect software application that didn’t exist but failed disastrously to prove his theory that the business Users were ungrateful, narcissistic, bellyachers, Mulhausen was ecstatic that he was being applauded for the successful implementation of a perfect software application he knew nothing about.
“Did I approve this project?” Mulhausen asked me giddy with exuberance.
“Sort of,” I said with dampened exasperation. “Remember that discussion we had about the widgets? Well, we produced the green widget.”
“So essentially, it was my idea,” he said sucking air through his engorged nostrils.
“Yes,” I confirmed.
“What does this software do?”
“What does a widget do?”
“That’s what this software does. Which is why its flawless and the business loves it.”
“That is a great idea. Why is Fessler taking credit for it?”
“He doesn’t want any credit for it. He feels the whole project was a massive failure.”
“How can he think that? The business loves it.”
“Yes, he agrees. The business loves it. Which is why he believes it was a colossal disaster.”
Nobody approved the new developer licenses, but since we were now developing software that didn’t exist, the developers also did not really exist and therefore the licenses were no longer required.
While Mulhausen was pointing the gun at me in Weekly Staff, I suddenly saw the gun as only a widget instead of his useless dick. Something worse—something that didn’t even exist. Which made me very calm, and I even let out a little chuckle. And his hand began to tremble.
“Where’s Smithee!” he barked.