by Elizabeth Zielinski, CMM | April 10, 2014

The Peter Principle is a management theory that says every person in a hierarchy will continue to be promoted for their success until eventually they are promoted into jobs they cannot handle. It came from a book written in 1969 by Dr. Lawrence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, and was intended as a satirical commentary on bureaucracy. But the insights it provided have launched countless management discussions, particularly in cultures where employees seek the external validation of promotions and titles.
I believe that a modified version of the Peter Principle also happens among meetings that are held in the same format or with similar objectives over and over again. When a meeting is very successful in whatever terms one applies — be that budgetary, attendance or any other metric — the presumption is that you should follow the same formula again. Eventually, whatever was done at that meeting that made it so successful the first time ceases to work, and we don’t discover that until after the shift has taken place. I call this the Peter Principle of Meetings.
We’ve probably all attended certain meetings that have the same format and reasonably similar education, year after year. While it can sometimes be comforting to know what to expect when we attend, the reality is that recycling ideas doesn’t encourage our growth as attendees or as practitioners. On the other hand, it’s not practical or recommended that we reinvent the wheel every time we deliver an annual meeting. So how do we recognize the changing trends before not changing has a negative effect on our product, while balancing the things that we know are time-tested successes?
Listen to multiple feedback mechanisms. Evaluate attendee surveys, but also listen in to the anecdotal conversations that occur during breaks and social events. And don’t overlook the value of hearing the observations from everyone associated with your event, at all levels of your own staff and from the service providers you have hired. Listen carefully and always ask questions.
Continue to expand your own expertise, while connecting the dots to the way you deliver your events. Building on the competency you bring to managing the meeting is the best way to forestall the incompetency implied by the Peter Principle of Meetings.
View your attendees as a team that you manage. Study those areas that might affect attendees' ability to make the most of their participation. Is morale low? Are they lacking in any key skills or information? Have they been properly supported to make the most of the time they are spending at your meeting? Ask these questions every time before assuming the answers.
Finally, remember that any idea that has run its natural course doesn’t mean that the idea wasn’t a good one in the first place. Let go of the ownership you might feel toward elements you once championed. Allowing the Peter Principle of Meetings to continue is a seductive habit, because we love it when we have a hit. But we don’t have to experience a miss before we take action to prevent one.
What are some of the ways you prevent a successful meeting from becoming stale? I’d love to know. Please respond in the comments below, or via email to You can also tweet your comments to @E_Zielinski.