The Putt’s Law, formulated by Archibald Putt, in 1981, apparently can be seen as applicable to the technology world. But if one can see beyond the obvious, it is as universally applicable as two other laws – The Peter Principle and The Dilbert Principle- that we have looked into in so far as the issue competence (or incompetence) is concerned! Like such laws and the books that contain these full-grown discussions on the concerned eponymous management principles, the first reading is a matter of sheer joy of a reading humorous satirical book. However, more of what is written sinks in, one starts feeling more serene, as one starts realizing that what is being discussed there is right here, all around, each one of us.
Archibald Putt himself is an accomplished technocrat in a high-technology company. During his work, he has got opportunity to closely analyze the hierarchical intricacies of the high-technology or R& D or advance project management fields. In the first of a series of papers published in Research & Development journal, in 1976, his tenet was that only way to avoid Peter’s level of incompetence syndrome was to create creative incompetence – a high level of incompetence in some area that does not affect one’s present performance but does assure there will be no further offers of promotion. Unlike hierarchies in other fields, creative incompetence is the rule rather than the exception in hierarchies in science and technology. As a result, many low-level positions remain staffed by competent persons who never reach their level of incompetence. However, as is the case in general, successful technocrat would not like to be chained down by the limited ambitions and vision. Any normal (successful) person would aspire for the position of eminence in a technical hierarchy.
The matter is further compounded by the real-life situations when frequently there is no way to judge whether individual is competent or incompetent to hold a given position. In other words, there is no adequate competence criterion for technical managers. In complex technological projects, the outcome of the project is most strongly affected by preexisting but unknown technological factors over which the project manager has no control. In many a case, the goals or objectives are set even before a manager is chosen.
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:
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.
Archibald Putt put his observation in these papers in more detailed and organised form in a book ‘Putt’s Law and the Successful Technocrats’ in the year 1981. The book presented more than one law and more than one corollary to each law. The book was revised in 2006 as ‘Putt’s Law and the Successful Technocrats – How to Win in the Information Age [ISBN: 978-0-471-78893-5; February 2006; Wiley-IEEE Press; 184 Pages]. Since all the laws and the ensuing corollaries were still valid, none these was dropped in the new addition. However there several more additions. The most significant additions relate to advances in information technologies that have changed forever the way people work and interact with each other. New analyses, first revealed in this edition, will be valuable to all who aspire to win in the Information Age. The new revision also includes recently developed Method of Rational Exuberance, which practically guarantees a rapid rise in management. The revised edition also answers the often-asked question, “Can Putt’s Law be broken?”
The book is divided into five parts –
- Part One, “Putt’s Primer,” is an introduction to the guidelines needed to succeed in technological hierarchies.
- Part Two, “The Successful Technocrat,” consists of 11 chapters that present the tale of I. M. Sharp, who went from being an average high school student to being a successful technocrat.
- Part Three, “Basic Putt,” consists of seven chapters that introduce a methodology that technologists can use in the management of high technology projects.
- Part Four, “Advanced Topics,” consists of six chapters that explain how to select projects, evaluate ideas, and thrive in a technological organization.
- Part Five, “Putt’s Canon,” consists of three chapters that summarize all the laws, corollaries, rules, and precepts presented in the book, serving as an excellent reference.
The author also states in his Preface to the book that ‘some scholarly types have suggested that the writings in this book should be viewed merely as humorous satire. Holding that view can inhibit the success of an otherwise competent technocrat. It is not the view of many successful technocrats who studied and used the lessons of the book. While winning the game, they laughed just as often as others, especially on the way to the bank.’
As we end this discourse, it would be interesting to note that ‘Archibald Putt’ is a pseudonym, whose actual identity is still not revealed. He has served on government advisory committees, managed basic and applied research, and held executive positions in a large multinational corporation. He received his PhD degree from a leading institute of technology and has served as president of an international technical society.
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For such a talented person, we cannot expect that he has adopted this pseudonym without any purpose. Therefore, some more search is called for.
The Archibald of Archibald Putt can be seen to yield different meanings. The dictionary meaning of Archibald is ‘distinguished and bold.’ And Putt is a gentle stroke that hits a golf ball across the green towards the hole. So, one meaning of Archibald Putt is a gentle push by a distinguished and bold noble man! It is clearly redundant to say that such a gentle push by distinguished and bold person can resonate many times more effectively than any amount of roof-top shouting.
References in English Language and Usage give more interesting insights :
The Online Etymology Dictionary explains: – British World War I military slang for “German anti-aircraft fire” (1915) supposedly is from black humor of airmen dodging hostile fire and thinking of the refrain of a popular music hall song, “Archibald, certainly not!”
This source quotes Ernest Weekly’s An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1921) with an alternative explanation: – “It was at once noticed at Brooklands [where much aviation development and testing was carried out prior to 1914, and portrayed in the film Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines] that in the vicinity of, or over, water or damp ground, there were disturbances in the air causing bumps or drops to these early pioneers. Some of these ‘remous’ were found to be permanent, one over the Wey river, and another at the corner of the aerodrome next to the sewage-farm. Youth being fond of giving proper names to inanimate objects, the bump near the sewage-farm was called by them Archibald. As subsequently, when war broke out, the effect of having shell bursting near an aeroplane was to produce a ‘remous’ reminding the Brookland trained pilots of their old friend Archibald, they called being shelled ‘being Archied’ for short. Any flying-man who trained at Brooklands before the war will confirm the above statement”.
Aside: If interested in this matter more, please read “Archibald, Certainly Not!”: Words and Weapons no.4
If we take this background of ‘Archibald’ then, Archibald Putt would mean a gentle push by an anti-aircraft gun, which is marvelous tongue-in-cheek oxymoron. In the present case, it serves the purpose of the author who also putts the fire power of his tenets like the famed accuracy of German anti-aircraft fire.
 ‘The Successful Technocrat’ – a series of papers by Archibald Putt in Research and Development journal in 1976
 Putt’s Law – A book review
2 thoughts on “The Eponymous Principles of Management – Putt’s Law”
This post was highly informative for me. I went through some of the papers of Putt. Delightful reading.
In India, there is generally some glamour associated with administrative jobs. Thus, in scientific organisations it is rare to come across ‘Creative Incompetence’. But you do find a Principal Scientist hankering to become ‘Director’. In academics, to become a principal, HOD, or VC. To incentivise good scientists/scholars to remain in research, the organisations find ‘Creative Nomenclatures’ and confer titles like ‘Scientist Emeritus’, ‘Professor Emeritus’, ‘National Professor’ etc. West is culturally different, here ‘Creature Comforts’, ‘Authority’ has more value.
Thanks a lot for the post which broadened my knowledge.
I totally agree about craze for administrative posts, which seem to confer ‘power’ over the technical cadre.
Thanks for adding a practical dimension to the my theoretical notes.