Outsource. Avoid the Peter Principle and work “in flow.”


Are you familiar with the Peter Principle? I first heard of it in 1969, not long after Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull wrote a book with the same name that explained the idea.

We were driving through South Africa when our car broke down.

We weren’t far from a small town, and on the edge of it, we found a garage that was falling apart. We found a very grumpy mechanic, who we think owned the business, among the usual junk in a garage. There were old posters advertising cigarettes mixed in with bare-all calendars on every wall, oil-stained stacks of paperwork on the small desk, and dusty, greasy piles of old rags that we had to step around.

He might have been a great mechanic, but he had no idea how to deal with people. A well-read university student who was traveling with me to Mae Salong told me that this was a perfect example of the Peter Principle. Here was a man who would have been great at fixing cars if he had worked for someone else. But because he owned the business, he had to do things he wasn’t good at, like customer service, paperwork, and organization, and he was terrible at them.
The main point the authors made was that people would eventually move up in organizations.

levels that are above their skill level
It was written a long time ago, before the Internet made it possible for people to work from home or a small office, which started the entrepreneurial revolution of today, but its basic idea is still true.

Work-in-progress
A few decades later, I learned about another idea called “being in flow.” This theory comes from the research of Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wanted to find out “how to live your life as a work of art, rather than as a chaotic response to outside events.” He did 250,000 surveys in a number of countries to find out what people thought about happiness and what made them happy.

From a business point of view, it means to be in a place where your challenges are well-suited to your skills, you’re neither bored nor worried, and you’re fully engaged in what you’re doing. It’s the opposite of apathy.

Because of “external events,” like his customers, our mechanic had a “chaotic response” to his work environment. As soon as he had to talk to a person, negotiate a deal, explain the solution, and do the paperwork, he was no longer “in flow.” In fact, these things made him almost unable to speak and completely unable to do anything. As he put his head under the car’s hood and thought about “his art,” he was engrossed and happy as can be.

Decades later, many of us are still not always in flow, and we are often forced to do work that is above or below our skill level or that we don’t care about.

No matter what drove us to put up our shingle and say we were open for business, it didn’t mean we were great at marketing, managing human resources, keeping accurate books, being financially savvy, building websites, or writing great copy.

If the cranky mechanic worked in his field today, he would have done better by outsourcing instead of hiring or contracting. Well, yes, that doesn’t matter. Outsourcing is basically contract work, but I would argue that it changes the way people think.

In the past, you either hired a staff member or hired a professional service to do the whole set of services for you, which came with a price tag to match.

When an employer moves into the employment space, there is a good chance that they will also fall for the Peter Principle. Entrepreneurs aren’t always good managers, and they’re often bad at giving tasks to other people.

Hiring vs. contracting out
On the other hand, outsourcing is when a business hires another business to do a piece of work. There is a different tone. Outside of the contract, there is no need to do anything. The price is known and can be used to make a budget. You can try another outsourcer if the first one doesn’t work. At some point, you’ll get along with a wide range of people who you can hire when you need to and not in between, without feeling bad about it.

Outsourcing is the most amazing example of how the Internet works to keep us in the flow and doing work that we are good at.

Here are five things you can do over the course of three months to make outsourcing work well.

First month. Open an Excel spread sheet and make a list of all the things you do. For example, emailing clients, calling clients, meeting clients, writing blogs, emailing a database, building websites, doing paperwork, etc. Then, give each activity a certain amount of time each day. At the end of the month, you should look at these numbers. How long does each thing take? Could each activity be broken down into things you HAD to do and things you could give to someone else to do?

Two months. Keep the same Excel sheet, but this time, as you do the tasks you think you could outsource, make a dot point note of the steps. What are you doing to actually make it happen? So, for example, to email a database, you write the email, find the passwords to get into the account, add new data, upload the email to the software, add links, test it, and send it. How often do you do this, and how long does each time take? Do the same thing for all of the things you do that you would at least like to be able to hire someone else to do.

Third month. You now have the start of some briefs that are pretty complete. Choose one. Write out the whole brief. Tell me what this job is for. Make sure you’re precise and detailed. There should be a clear path from one task to the next.

Then sign up for an account on one of the platforms for outsourcing. I choose to use Odesk because it’s easy to use. Put up the ad.

Try to use as many filters as possible. If you don’t say much, you will get a lot of applications. Set out exactly what qualities you want applicants to have. For example, a strong eye for detail, familiarity with MailChimp, the ability to create and install forms on WordPress sites, the ability to make templates using logos that are given, the ability to sub-edit, the ability to write copy, a track record, etc.

Use four steps to sort through the applicants. First, look to see if they answered your questions. If they say, for example, that they are good at Photoshop, move on. Second, look at the quality of the answers. Third, look at the customer reviews and work history. Fourth, go through and pick the top three.

Get in touch with the outsourcers and give each of them a test job. PLEASE PAY. It’s wrong on a moral level to ask people to work for free. Also, cost per hour should not be used as a filter. What you pay for is what you get. Period.

Maybe all three will work out great, and you’ll have three people to work with, each with a little something different to offer. If you use this method, you’ll probably find at least one person with whom you can try outsourcing.

Now that you’ve done it once, go through your list of tasks and do the same thing for each one you think you can hire someone else to do. You will naturally get rid of the bad things and things you don’t want to do. You’ll find a group of trustworthy, good people who are happy to help you if you ask.

You’ll be on your way to making your work life a work of art instead of a chaotic response to events outside of your control.