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Happy’s Tech Talk
By Happy Holden
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Happy’s Tech Talk #18: Putt’s Law and the Successful Technocrat
Editor’s note: This column is a combination of direct quotes from the book author and Happy’s own comments. Anything in quotation marks comes from the book’s author, Archibald Putt.
I have read very few humorous technical columns in my career, but the one exception is an 11-part series, “The Successful Technocrat”1 by Archibald Putt, which was featured in Research &Development Journal in 1976 and 1977. The author later published a book, Putt’s Law and the Successful Technocrat2, and years later, I tried to buy it—only to have to wait eight years to get it. In the meantime, I have saved copies of the articles and sent them to friends.
A Must-Read for Engineers and Technologists
It is a shame that I never discovered who Archibald Putt (his pseudonym) was, but I suspect he was an engineer or scientist at IBM. What I like about his style is that he uses equations and Boolean logic to emphasize his points. Hopefully this will induce you to find and read this gem of a book. In this column, I will summarize each of the chapters.
Chapter 1: Putt’s Law
“Beginning a disquisition on the vagaries of upward mobility through the ranks of your fellow workers in today's R&D community—how to do it and what to do when you get there.”
The Peter Principle2 states that without an adequate competence criterion for technical managers, there is no way to determine when a person has reached his level of incompetence. Thus, a clever and ambitious individual may be promoted from one level of incompetence to another. He will ultimately perform incompetently in the highest level of the hierarchy, just as he did in numerous lower levels.
The lack of an adequate competence criterion, combined with the frequent practice of creative incompetence in technical hierarchies, results in a competence inversion with the most competent people remaining near the bottom, while persons of lesser talent rise to the top.
It also provides the basis for Putt's Law, which can be stated in an intuitive and non-mathematical form as follows: “Two types of people dominate technology: those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand.”
As in any hierarchy, most people in technology neither understand nor manage much of anything. This, however, does not create an exception to Putt's Law, because such persons clearly do not dominate the hierarchy. While this was not previously stated as a basic law, the success of every technocrat depends on his ability to deal with, and benefit from, the consequences of Putt's Law.
Chapter 2: Three Laws of Crises
“Our expert on the hierarchical intricacies of the R&D world discusses the hazards of excessive perfection and promulgates a trio of governing conditions for building your own crises.”
The First Law of Crises addresses the importance of “rocking the boat,” or having some imperfections or crises on the projects of a technical hierarchy. The First Law of Crises follows rather logically from these observations and may be stated formally as follows: “Technological hierarchies abhor perfection.”
The Second Law of Crises addresses how to fix the incompetence level. What is the right amount of incompetence, or the right number of crises, to introduce into a given job? A partial answer: “The maximum rate of promotion is achieved at a level of crises only slightly less than that which will result in dismissal.”
Thus, the best strategy to begin a new assignment is with a level of crises as low as possible. The level should then be increased gradually until the desired promotion occurs. The optimum timing for this, as defined by the Third Law of Crises, can be stated in mathematical form as:
“One?third of a maximum tolerable level should be reached as soon as the next promotion can reasonably be expected.” This time is given as t in the figure. The time, 2t, is also of interest. because a person by then will have waited twice as long as expected for a promotion. Furthermore, the optimum level of crises will have reached two-thirds of the maximum permitted level.
Chapter 3: The Law of Failure
“In the R&D world, it's "to the loser belongs the spoils" (if you play your cards right). Our expert on getting ahead tells how, when failure strikes, you can salvage your career.”
Early laws of Putt speak of rising to the level of incompleteness, but what about those who are incompetence? Is there hope for these people? For most of them, the answer is yes. There is hope of promotion, even for the truly incompetent. However, a good appreciation is needed for the Law of Failure: “Technology abhors little failures, but rewards big ones.”
The ambitious technocrat following the Law of Failure must be aware of the corollary to the law: “If you must fail, fail big.” An important refinement to this corollary is knowing the optimum timing for big failures, but the curve can be illustrative. Curve A is the optimum strategy for introducing crises. Curve B shows what to do if you find yourself unavoidably too far above curve A. You must increase the crisis level to get above the zone of minor failure into the zone of major failure, where you will be safe (Figure 2).
Chapter 4: The S-Curve Law
“Having told how to manage projects to best advantage (yours), Putt now discloses the secret of selecting the best project (for you) and how to foresee the best time to get out of it.”
How do you select the right project? Remember, all progress in technology follows an S-curve. You must get your promotion before the actual progress of the project deviates from the optimistic corporate projection.
Following the initial success of the project, progress usually continues at a rapid rate, leading to an overly optimistic, corporate, straight-line projection (Figure 3). Then a gradual leveling out occurs. This causes great trauma in the marketing and financial sectors of the company. This also results in increased pressure on the technical groups because it is their job to solve problems and get technical progress back onto optimistic, straight-line projections.
There is great temptation to remain with a project long after the point of success has been reached. This is technically referred to as "basking in the glory." It is, however, an ill-advised luxury. For once the rate of progress begins to level out at a certain point, it may be too late to avoid the recriminations associated with failing to meet straight-line projections.
Chapter 5: Laws Governing Values
“Your hierarchical position can be enhanced if you draw on the abilities of others, but only if they are of equal or higher rank.” Putt provides the postulational principles to prove it.
The importance of factors in evaluating good ideas is stressed in the Law of Governing the Value of Ideas: “The value of an idea is measured less by its content than by the structure of the hierarchy in which it is pronounced.”
Putt also provides a ranking of technical articles and ideas that led to the Law of Governing the Value of Technical Publications: “The value of a technical article when first published is proportional to the sum of the prestige of its authors, but its ultimate value is proportional to the sum of titles subsequent references to it.”
Chapter 6: Three Laws of Advice
“Some readers may be familiar with the First Law of Advice, but the Second and Third Laws of Advice are neither so well-known nor so obvious.” Our expert provides two illustrative examples to show how they work.
First Law of Advice: “The correct advice to give is the advice that is desired.”
Second Law of Advice: “The desired advice is revealed by the structure of the hierarchy, not by the structure of technology.”
Third Law of Advice: “Simple advice is the best advice.”
Putt provides a simple story of a petroleum company executive in the 1920s which successfully marketed a “funny colored” gasoline through the use of a consultant. This brings us to Chapter 7.
Chapter 7: The Consultant’s Law
“If you've ever dreamed of becoming a consultant, read this advice from our expert on the hierarchiology of technology.” Two examples illustrate how the Consultant's Law works and why you can't ignore it.
“A successful consultant never gives as much information to his clients as he gets in return.”
The value Vc to a customer of a discussion with a consultant (Vo) is equal to the information given (Ig) times the price per unit (Pu) that the customer is willing to pay for the information. Stated mathematically, this becomes:
Vc = Pu X Ig
Assuming the customer pays a fee (F) equal to the value of the advice he receives (an interesting even if naïve assumption), then F = (Pu X Ig) and the value of the discussion to the consultant becomes:
V0= (Pu X lr)
This equation states that the value to a consultant of each discussion is proportional to the information he receives and completely independent of any information he may give in return. The failure of most technical consultants can be traced directly to their mistaken presumption that the function of a consultant is to give information and advice. In reality, a consultant's job is just the reverse.
Chapter 8: Laws of Survival
“Our expert has already told us the ploys for getting ahead in the hierarchy of technology, but you can’t get ahead if you’ve been kicked off the team. Here's how to make sure you are not.”
As described in the law governing advancement and survival in technology: “Advancement demands risk but survival is achieved through risk reduction.”
First Law of Survival: “To get along, go along.”
Second Law of Survival: “To protect your position, fire the fastest rising employees first.”
Chapter 9: Five Laws of Decision-making
Our intrepid explorer of the technological hierarchy looks at the complex process of making up the corporate mind. He finds, and sets down here, five rules that should be invaluable to the upward-oriented technologist.
First Law of Decision-making: “Managers make decisions.”
Second Law of Decision-making: “Any decision is better than no decision.”
Third Law of Decision-making: “A decision is judged by the conviction with which it is uttered.”
Fourth Law of Decision-making: “Technical analyses have no value above the mid-management level.”
Fifth Law of Decision-making: “Decisions are justified by benefits to the organization. Decisions are made by considering benefits to the decision-makers.”
Chapter 10: Laws of Reward and Punishment
“If your organization is in a state of malevolent stagnation, as defined here by our hierarchiologist, there's little hope.” But you should at least read his remarks to find out how you got there.
The Law of Failure clearly reveals: “Failure to fail fully is a fool's folly.”
The A-B-C-D reward system (Figure 5) exists in technical hierarchies:
A for Innovative: “Reward big failures and successes. Punish small failures.”
B for Aggressive: “Although logical, the outcome of a project cannot be determined before its completion and those punished to often cease to try. All hierarchies experience hierarchiological aging, which moves B to C.”
C for Conservative: “Heavy penalties, given for a small failure, engenders a sense of resentment toward those who succeed.”
D for Stagnant: “Repeated punishment for small failures eventually leads employees to refuse to accept any risk at all. The organization succumbs to the Law of Stagnation: Organizational stagnation occurs when the punishment for success is as large as for failure.”
In advanced cases of hierarchiological aging and organizational stagnation, no decisions are made that are not fully specified. Any attempt to deviate from the status quo is resisted. This is the familiar condition of most government bureaucracies, the military, and educational institutions, where no one “rocks the boat” to minimize the pain.
Chapter 11: Law of the Estimated Fact
“Beware of giving a ballpark estimate. If it's credible, it will be accepted and disseminated as fact.” Rowe’s Law continues advice for the professional initiated by Archibald Putt.
First Law: “Any estimate within the realm of credibility, given by anyone considered an expert, will immediately be accepted by the received and promulgated as a fact.”
Second Law: “When the source of an estimate is identified as an authority for the estimate, his conclusions, not his estimation parameters, are propagated.”
Third Law: “Regardless of the path followed from the expert to highest-level recipient, that person will only accept what he wants to hear.”
Over the 46 years since the initial publication of Putt’s work, he has appeared in many blogs and other references. One is from David Bruggeman, “Part Dilbert, Part Dale Carnegie—one for fun.”4 He said that, while not the same as the Peter Principle3, “in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”
Putt is arguing that there is an incompetence inversion in technical organizations. Those in managerial positions lack the technical knowledge to understand what they manage, and employees are, essentially, smarter than the managers. This perspective is reflected in the rest of his writings.
Unlike Dilbert, he was not a syndicated journalist or popularized like the Peter Principle. But among us few, he is still revered for his insightfulness and prose.
- “The Successful Technocrat,” by Archibald Putt, Research and Development Journal, January 1976 to December 1977.
- Putt’s Law and the Successful Technocrat, by Archibald Putt, Wiley-IEEE Press, April 2006.
- “The Peter Principle: What It Is and How to Overcome It,” by Adam Hayes, March 20, 2021, Investopedia.com.
- “Part Dilbert, Part Dale Carnegie—one for fun,” by David Bruggeman, Science and Public Policy, Vol.31, February 2007.
Happy Holden has worked in printed circuit technology since 1970 with Hewlett-Packard, NanYa Westwood, Merix, Foxconn, and Gentex. He is currently a contributing technical editor with I-Connect007, and the author of Automation and Advanced Procedures in PCB Fabrication, and 24 Essential Skills for Engineers.
This column originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of PCB007 Magazine.
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