Best Management Strategy? Promote People at Random

Last Updated Oct 1, 2010 10:21 AM EDT

According to an Italian research team from the Universitá di Catania, organizations are better off promoting people entirely at random. This will produce superior results to supervisors making the selections, according to Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda and Cesare Garofalo.

This sounds shockingly similar to research by Princeton professor Burton Malkiel, who found that "a blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a newspaper's stock page could select a portfolio that would do just as well as one carefully selected by experts."

I hadn't been aware of this work in Italy until this morning, as I perused the results of Thursday's Ig Nobel awards announced at Harvard University. The Ig Nobels, a celebration of strange research, are selected by Annals of Improbable Research magazine. Other winners this year included the team that demonstrated that socks worn on the outside of shoes helps prevent slipping on ice, and researchers who proved the health hazard posed by scientists with beards. (Facial hair provides a home for nasty microbes picked up in the lab.)

The Italian teams research was written up in their paper, The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study.

The work looks at the results of the Peter Principle, which predicts that people are promoted to the level of their incompetence. Their skill gets them a series of job advances until they are ultimately promoted one level higher than abilities warrant. This results in an organization promoting itself into declining performance.

The Italian researchers ran computational models and concluded that "counterintuitively, that in order to avoid such an (Peter Principle) effect the best ways for improving the efficiency of a given organization are either to promote each time an agent at random or to promote randomly the best and the worst members in terms of competence."

Is your dart board in top working order?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.