Fight The Peter Principle With Five Minute Fit

Five Minute Fit is a featherweight business reorg process using binary 360° feedback. I’m about to tell you why we ought to implement such a process, but if you’re already on board with the notion of moving personnel around to find their best fit, you can skip to the demo here.

One of the most damning teardowns of traditional corporate structure can be found in the Peter Principle. Its semi-satirical theory argues that employees rise to their level of incompetence, which for our purposes here, deserves a bit more explanation:

A. People are promoted to a point of failure, yet remain in that position indefinitely because we have no organizational mechanisms for refitting them

B. People are promoted based on performance in their prior position, rather than being promoted based on their fitness for the impending position

It’s the kind of theory most lower-level employees would readily agree with, and most upper management personnel would dismiss. The latter may argue that as employees advance, they inherit greater obligation to shoulder the failures of others — that is, the perceived incompetence of a boss is really just a manifestation of the broader team’s limitations and mistakes. There’s a kernel of truth to that, but it neglects to account for why subordinates are causing this failure friction.

Many orgs are riddled with drag created by their own employees, but most employees would say their behavior is merely the output of management’s direction. It’s a vital component of the Peter Principle, but often dismissed: we don’t promote people into management because of how well they manage, so when they do reach management, their newfound incompetence infects everyone beneath.

In a hierarchical structure, this is leadership’s obligation to remedy. By design, no one sitting in the lower branches of an org tree can shake a supervisor down without disrupting the whole plant.

To be fair (for now), some of that hierarchical hardening is practical. If we promote someone to a point where they can access sensitive information (e.g. salaries, trade secrets, questionable business practices), they don’t unlearn those things when we demote them. The people just become liabilities… so we leave them in place to protect the organization.

Of course, that sounds like a pretty crappy way to run an organization, and when we dive into these sensitivities we often find they shouldn’t exist to begin with (salary secrecy isn’t doing employees any favors, and “questionable business practices”, whatever they are, should probably cease and desist). On the whole, these practical arguments are really just the veiled fear of placing trust in one’s workforce. You might recall this fear from other infamous management practices such as, “refusing to support professional development and education because the employee might leave”, and “refusing to allow working from home because employees might be less productive.”

Anyone afraid to trust is going to make poor people decisions, and to this end, too many business leaders have the emotional maturity of a sixteen-year-old. How then, can we start to inject some trust into the relationship and clear out the emotional baggage? As it relates to the Peter Principle, one tactic seems rather obvious: stop treating promotions as sacred and concrete. Move people around freely and frequently to find their sweet spot, and embrace impermanence in organizational hierarchies.

I created a 360° feedback mechanism for such purposes, called Five Minute Fit. As someone with a history of implementing 360s (and attempting to launch a startup that quantified employability), I’ve learned a few things the hard way, and baked them into this tool. The underpinnings of Five Minute Fit (let’s call it FMF) look like a decision tree:

The tree is then manifested as a feedback form using conditional logic to ask (mostly) binary questions. A prototype can be played here or seen below:

Now that you know what it looks like, let’s address some obvious questions.

What does it do?

FMF points employees in the direction their peers feel they should go to be most effective. Implementing it across the workforce (360°) offers a holistic perspective on each employee’s current fit for their role, and what role(s) they might want to pursue in search of a better fit. A real world example:

I’m an Administrative Assistant who has been cited for insubordination a handful of times and generally doesn’t get along with my supervisor. But the results of my FMF reveal an average fit score of 3.9 (likely a high performer with poor fit and an obstacle to changing roles) and a running theme of recommendations that I be moved to Project Management or the Product team, along with strong feedback indicating that the reason I can’t be moved into the aforementioned roles is due to management limitations. So what’s really happening here is that I am probably a very motivated employee whose ideas and drive for accountability need more room to breathe, and it could very well be the lack of initiative on my supervisor’s part that is keeping me from being moved into a role where my motivation and talent would be better utilized. Maybe that’s the supervisor’s fault, or maybe it’s not… we’d want to look at their FMF results to find out. In fact, let’s do that:

I’m a Sales VP who manages 50+ employees (including the Admin above), and I answer only to the CRO. Here are my FMF results, which in large part come from the people who work below or alongside me:

  • Fit Score: 2.3 (low performer with poor fit and an obstacle)
  • Recommendations: Field Sales, Sales Rep, Sales Training
  • Obstacles: Lack Of Evidence, Management Limitations

The people have spoken, and it sounds like I’m a poster child for the Peter Principle. The bulk of respondents think my current role is too challenging, and that a better fit would be something in Sales where I can actually sell instead of manage people. I am probably a really strong salesperson who either sucks at being a boss, or never got the proper training to be one.

The obstacles are, of course, not surprising given a typical hierarchy: no one can really prove to the CRO that I’m unfit to manage dozens of people, because companies don’t provide mechanisms to develop such evidence (short of telling HR that I habitually grope my subordinates in my office while doing lines of coke). So, FMF’s 360° input provides that necessary evidence to the CRO. And should the CRO fail to act on such evidence, that would track with the other noted obstacle of management limitations, at which point we’d want to look at the CRO’s FMF as well (don’t worry, I will not subject you to a third example).

Why Is It Built Like This?

Here are a few somewhat banal gems I’ll bestow up on you from my personal experience in peer evaluation:

  1. Evaluations are typically heavy on writing. People hate writing.
  2. People are also scared of writing, because it threatens anonymity. A 360° process is significantly hindered when people feel they can be identified.
  3. People are concerned about 360° evaluations placing too much weight on input from tangential employees (e.g., your boss’ evaluation of you shouldn’t be weighed equally against a peer who only interacts with you once a month).
  4. People struggle to make complex choices, such as rating someone’s performance on a 1–5 scale over the course of an entire year. Is behavior part of performance? What if I think their work has gone downhill recently? What was that thing my boss said about “no one gets 5s”? Are other bosses saying that?
  5. An evaluation tool full of complex choices and in-depth writing sounds like a lot of work, which along with the above, is why people hate evaluations.
  6. Because people hate evaluations, they rarely happen. Because they rarely happen, the insights are often unexpected at best and devastating at worst. This only perpetuates the cycle of avoiding evaluations, which in turn perpetuates the inflexibility of organizational hierarchies.

In short, we need evaluations to be more frequent and widespread, which seemingly requires that they be concise, anonymous, and actionable. That’s what FMF does.

The first question in the tree, “would you re-hire this employee for their role?”, is a riff on the daddy of all concise & actionable surveys: Net Promoter Score. But instead of offering the user a 3-tier scale up front as NPS does, I’ve made the choice binary to force simplicity and speed, while baking the nuance of the tiers into subsequent questions.

You can think of this question as the gauge of whether someone would’ve selected 9 or 10 vs. 7 or 8, had the first question been a standard NPS scale. Note that FMF does utilize the standard 1–5 employee evaluation scale, but does so in the background so as not to weigh on the user — and because we are going for fit more than current performance, so the numbers imply more than meets the eye. The subject’s score shifts as the user walks down the decision tree, culminating in the following insight:

1 = Unfit in current role, and unfit for any other role. These people are low performers for whom no better-fitting role exists at the company, and should be terminated.

2 = Unfit in current role, but fit for another role. These people are currently low performers hindered by their role, but some externality is preventing them from being moved into a better-fitting role.

3 = Fit for current role, or fit for an available role. These people should stay where they are or be moved into the recommended role that is available.

4 = Unfit in current role, but fit for another role. These people are currently high performers hindered by their role, but some externality is preventing them from being moved into a better-fitting role.

5 = Unfit in current role, but fit for an available role. These people are high performers for whom a better-fitting role is available.

The latter questions around which role would be a better fit, and what’s preventing that move from happening, are insights squeezed out of your very own coworkers. This is the kind of information supervisors and HR typically scour the bloated evaluation paragraphs for, boiled down to simple keywords and exclusive choices. Note, I have had a startup use FMF with a drop-down of roles (i.e. department names), but I’d only recommend that if you lack HR bandwidth and have a high level of department specialization relative to your staff count. As much as I love the idea of removing the one freehand question from this process, I think it’s more useful to grab the nuance of what users write in that box, rather than to force options which strip the key details.

Apart from this one question, everything else in FMF is an exclusive choice. Hence, the “five minute” moniker — this form is a featherweight task, both in physical completion time and in cognitive load. That makes it easy to crank out evaluations in high volume and high frequency, which in turn takes a lot of the taboo out of moving people around the company.

One section is particularly useful for HR and upper management, and that’s the obstacle question.

Once you’ve identified that you can’t move the people who really ought to be moved to better-fitting roles (2s and 4s), it’s imperative to understand why. Traditionally, this is where only the bravest employees would offer any guidance, as so many of the obstacles come back to supervisors. But these choices in the FMF form offer a window into actionability — whether the limitation is that we just can’t afford to move someone, or that the subject hasn’t yet garnered enough hard proof justifying a move, or that the perception is purely a failure of management to take initiative.

To aid in weighting evaluation inputs fairly, the form begins by asking the user how often they interact with the subject. Businesses can obviously tweak this to taste, but in my opinion it’s the frequency of interaction that drives the weight of an evaluation — not seniority.

What Else Can It Do?

An advanced version of FMF could take people insights even further:

Extending the math on average fit score would reveal the mode, standard deviation, range, etc. Comparing these stats across the entire staff would illustrate just how much consensus there is on the subject’s fit (i.e. does this employee only have a few outlier relationships, or are coworkers violently split on their opinions?)

Another way to slice the scores would be to break out or trend results by familiarity (via the weighting question). In other words, understanding how coworkers’ perceptions of an employee changes as interaction frequency increases. Often, the people who work closely with an employee will have drastically different perspectives from those who rarely interact.

There’s also the obvious step of making intra-department and same-title comparisons, to aid in understanding where the company may have systemic issues rather than isolated misfits. If half your customer service reps’ scores are hovering around a 4, it sounds like that department is a mill for making awesome employees who are destined to burn out. Quite a few layers to peel back on that one.

Even the raw data from the one freehand question can be useful, regardless of whether action is taken. If FMF sent each subject a list of the entries submitted for “what kind of role would you like to move them into?”, I’d learn more about where my peers think my talents and efforts should be directed. So if I’m the Admin Assistant who ought to be a Project Manager or on the Product team, those recommendations come my way and I can use them as fodder for pursuing those roles, even if I can’t be moved there yet. I can justify spending more time with those employees, taking on side projects that involve those departments, etc. I can start down my path to a better fit.

How Does It Integrate Into The Ops Stack?

The bad news is, it doesn’t. The good news is, it’s free and I just told you how to build it.

The reason this article isn’t a sales pitch is that the product only exists in one-off iterations or prototypes, painstakingly managed by me. While I’ve implemented it at several startups, it doesn’t tie to Active Directory, or plug into Salesforce… but it’s simple enough that you should be able to build rather than buy anyway, so go nuts (and by all means, let me know how nuts you decide to get). But whatever you take away from this, remember the underlying theme: dismantle the hierarchy.

Future of work, future of mobility, future of ice cream.

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