From the semi-serious to the confusingly ironic, the business world is not short of pseudo-scientific principles, laws and management theories concerning how organisations and their leaders should and should not behave. CIO UK takes a look at some sincere, irreverent and leftfield management concepts that are relevant to CIOs and all business leaders.
The Peter Principle
A concept formulated by Laurence J Peter in 1969, the Peter Principle runs that in a hierarchical structure, employees are promoted to their highest level of incompetence at which point they are no longer able to fulfil an effective role for their organisation.
In the Peter Principle people are promoted when they excel, but this process falls down when they are unlikely to gain further promotion or be demoted with the logical end point, according to Peter, where "every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties" and that "work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence".
To counter the Peter Principle leaders could seek the advice of Spanish liberal philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. While he died 14 years before the Peter Principle was published, Ortega had been in exile in Argentina during the Spanish Civil War and prompted by his observations in South America had quipped: "All public employees should be demoted to their immediately lower level, as they have been promoted until turning incompetent."
Cyril Northcote Parkinson's eponymous law, derived from his extensive experience in the British Civil Service, states that: "Works expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."
The first sentence of a humorous essay published in The Economist in 1955, Parkinson's Law is familiar with CIOs, IT teams, journalists, students, and every other occupation that can learn from Parkinson's mocking of pubic administration in the UK. The corollary law most applicable to CIOs runs that "data expands to fill the space available for storage", while Parkinson's broader work about the self-satisfying uncontrolled growth of bureaucratic apparatus is as relevant for the scaling startup as it is to the large corporate.
Parkinson's Law of Triviality
Flirting with the ground between flippancy and seriousness, Parkinson argued that boards and members of an organisation give disproportional weight to trivial issues and those that are easiest to grasp for non-experts. In his words: "The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum of money involved."
Parkinson's anecdote is of a fictional finance committee's three-item agenda to cover a £10 million contract discussing the components of a new nuclear reactor, a proposal to build a new £350 bicycle shed, and finally which coffee and biscuits should be supplied at future committee meetings. While the first item on the agenda is far too complex and ironed out in two and a half minutes, 45 minutes is spent discussing bike sheds, and debates about the £21 refreshment provisions are so drawn out that the committee runs over its two-hour time allocation with a note to provide further information about coffee and biscuits to be continued at the next meeting.
The Dilbert Principle
Referring to a 1990s theory by popular Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, the Dilbert Principle runs that companies tend to promote their least competent employees to management roles to curb the amount of damage they are capable of doing to the organisation.
Unlike the Peter Principle, which is positive in its aims by rewarding competence, the Dilbert Principle assumes people are moved to quasi-senior supervisory positions in a structure where they are less likely to have an effect on productive output of the company which is performed by those lower down the ladder.
Coined by Douglas Hofstadter in his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Hofstadter's Law states: "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law."
Particularly relevant to CIOs and business leaders overseeing large projects and transformation programmes, Hofstadter's Law suggests that even appreciating your own subjective pessimism in your projected timelines, they are still worth re-evaluating.
"Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong."
An old adage and without basis in any scientific laws or management principles, Murphy's Law is always worth bearing in mind for CIOs or when undertaking thorough scenario planning for adverse situations. It's also perhaps worth bearing in mind the corollary principle Finagle's Law, which states: "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong - at the worst possible moment."
Concerning the life expectancy of non-perishable things, the Lindy Effect is as relevant to CIOs procuring new technologies or maintaining legacy infrastructure as it is to the those buying homes, used cars, a fountain pen or mobile phone.
Harder to define than other principles and laws, the Lindy Effect suggests that mortality rate decreases with time, unlike in nature and in human beings where - after childhood - mortality rate increases with time. Ergo, every day of server uptime implies a longer remaining life expectancy.
A corollary effect related to the Lindy Effect which is a good explanation is the Copernican Principle, which states that the future life expectancy is equal to the current age, i.e. that barring any addition evidence on the contrary, something must be halfway through its life span.
The Lindy Effect and the idea that older things are more robust has specific relevance to CIOs beyond servers and IT infrastructure with its association with source code, where newer code will in general have lower probability of remaining within a year and an increased likelihood of causing problems compared to code written a long time ago, and in project management where the lifecycle of a project grows and its scope changes, an Agile methodology can be used to mitigate project risks and fix mistakes.
The Jevons Paradox
Wikipedia offers the best economic description of the Jevons Paradox or Jevons effect, in which a technological progress increases efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource subsequently rises because of increasing demand.
Think email, think Slack, instant messaging, printing, how easy it is to create Excel reports, coffee-making, conference calls, network and internet speeds, the list is endless. If you suspect demand in these has increased along with technological advancement negating the positive impact of said efficiency gains in the first instance, sounds like the paradox first described by William Stanley Jevons in 1865 when observing coal consumption following the introduction of the Watt steam engine.
A light-hearted quip bespoke to computer programming and software development, the Ninety-Ninety Rule states that: "The first 90% of the code accounts for the first 90% of the development time. The remaining 10% of the code accounts for the other 90% of the development time." See also, Hofstadter's Law.
Related to this is the Pareto Principle, or the 80-20 Rule, and how it relates to software, with supporting anecdotes that "20% of the code has 80% of the errors" or in load testing that it is common practice to estimate that 80% of the traffic occurs during 20% of the time.
Pygmalion Effect and Golem Effect
Named after the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he carved, and relevant to managers across industry and seniority, the Pygmalion Effect runs that higher expectations lead to an increased performance.
Counter to the Pygmalion Effect is the Golem effect, whereby low expectations result in a decrease in performance.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect, named after two psychologists from Cornell University, states that incompetent people are significantly less able to recognise their own lack of skill, the extent of their inadequacy, and even to gauge the skill of others. Furthermore, they are only able to acknowledge their own incompetence after they have been exposed to training in that skill.
At a loss to find a better visual representation of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, here is Simon Wardley's graph with Knowledge and Expertise axes - a warning as to why self-professed experts are the worst people to listen to on a given subject.
See also this picture of AOL "Digital Prophet" David Shing and web developer Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
As relevant to company founders as it is to project owners, sponsors and originators, Founder's Syndrome should be a recognisable scenario to CIOs and business leaders alike. At risk of bestowing the subject such brevity, Founder's Syndrome runs that the driving force and passion of founders, which were often integral to the establishment and early successes of an organisation or project, eventually become a hindrance and destructive force - particularly as the project or company evolves into something the founder does not recognise and is unable to see the wood for the trees.
The Software Peter Principle
A derivative of the Peter Principle above, the Software Peter Principle describes a dying project which has become too complex to be understood even by its own developers.
Putt's Law and Negative Selection
Negative Selection has closer associations to politics, whereby leaders wishing to remain at the top do not reward the most competent with power in case they are able to assume the leader's position. In a similar end to the Peter Principle, this results in a rigid hierarchy which is progressively filled with incompetence.
While negative selection is probably not the best way to run a business, Putt's Law is specific to the technology and IT sector and states: "Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand."
Named after the fictional figure Archibald Putt and the 1981 book Putt's Law and the Successful Technocrat, Putt's Law is in many ways a precursor to the Dilbert Principle where incompetence is pushed out of the way into middle management roles in a competence inversion where the more technically gifted remain closer to the actual technology.
Inverse Digital Lindy Effect
The Inverse Digital Lindy Effect was coined by this very author with tongue positioned firmly in cheek to counter-balance one of the above principles, and specifically its relevance to life expectancy and where the burden of evidence lies while making predictions for an organisation's mortality.
In the Lindy Effect things that have survived are expected to continue surviving for a long time, and when challenged the burden of evidence lies on what is disrupting our initial body. Conversely, in the new Inverse Digital Lindy Effect, sometimes the 'Disrupted Lindy Effect' [I am literally making this up as I go along... - ed.] the burden of proof regarding its survival instead lies with the disrupted rather than the disrupter. Ergo something that has survived for a long time is assumed to be near extinction when threatened by disruption from new competitors unless it is able to provide enough circumstantial evidence on the contrary.
If you know of any laws, principles and theories - quack or otherwise - or even want to contribute your own eponymous laws, let us know on Twitter or in the comments.