War on Murphy’s Law

I hope everyone knows or has heard of Murphy’s Law [also referred to as Sod’s Law]. For the uninitiated don’t worry, it is quite simple; the old adage is:

Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong

This simple phrase does not do justice to the total havoc that ensues when the forces of Murphy’s Law come into play. If you intend on doing anything in life more complicated than boiling an egg then beware of Murphy and his blasted Law. By the way, it has nothing to do with Ireland…it’s just a name.

What went wrong?

The best example of Murphy’s Law at its worst is NASA’s Apollo 13 mission. Everything that could possibly go wrong, did. From Wikipedia

“Apollo 13 was the seventh manned mission in the American Apollo space program and the third intended to land on the Moon. The craft was launched on April 11, 1970…but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded two days later, crippling the service module upon which the Command Module depended…hardship caused by limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of potable water, and the critical need to jury-rig the carbon dioxide removal system, the crew returned safely to Earth on April 17.

The flight was commanded by James A. Lovell with John L. “Jack” Swigert as Command Module pilot and Fred W. Haise as Lunar Module pilot. Swigert was a late replacement for the original CM pilot Ken Mattingly, who was grounded by the flight surgeon after exposure to German measles.”

If you are a movie buff don’t miss the Apollo 13 film which is a very accurate representation of the course of events of that fateful mission: IMDB

 Why did it go wrong?

No one really knows why this unwritten law pops up and makes our lives such a misery. It is often used as an excuse whenever a series of bad events occur that can’t be explained logically. I have a few unsubstantiated theories; the first is to do with positive and negative energy in the Universe and how we call upon these forces subconsciously ie: negative thoughts attract bad juju and vice versa. I know, much too esoteric for this article so we won’t go there; forget I mentioned it.

My other theory is more concrete and easier to grasp as a concept; even to the point of calculating the frequency of something going wrong. I don’t want to bore everyone with maths and statistics so I’ll simply say that it’s to do with Probability Theory…sooner or later something will happen…probability says so.

 Declare War on Murphy’s Law

Links to A4 and hi res poster at end of article

Whatever the reason for events going all topsy-turvy at the worst possible time, leaders and managers must be aware of Murphy’s Law and be prepared to wage war on it. What follows is my Six Point Strategic Plan for declaring War on  Murphy’s Law.

WAR ROOM: Strategize

You can’t have a war without a War Room. This is where your plan of attack is formulated by the head honchos of the organisations.

Any project requires precise and careful planning. I always start with a feasibility study, weighing up pros and cons, costs, manpower requirements, timelines, time management, etc. etc.. One aspect of any feasibility study, often neglected, is fault tolerance, especially for those missions that are time-data-personnel sensitive. You need to plan for hiccups, what-ifs, total failure scenario, etc…how will you cope. Some planning or field errors can be tolerated whilst others cannot.

Try to remain objective and critical in lieu of the project; if something sounds or looks too easy then, most probably, it hasn’t been thought through well enough and it could end up being the chink in your armour. Sometimes you can best plan by reverse engineering the mission. Don’t start with a clean slate but rather from the end result and plan backwards until you reach your starting point. The main benefit is that it can often demonstrate the most linear and efficient completion method that would not have been evident if planned from the ground up.

Planning and strategy are all well and good but I know there are times when it’s not possible. Sometimes we are assigned a mission without warning which requires immediate execution or there are third party missions that your army merges with in midstream without being completely briefed on the strategic front. In order to have a fighting chance against Murphy’s Law then the next parts of my plan should help overcome unexpected obstacles.

THE TROOPS: Recruit Your Army

You can’t win a war without troops. The hardest task for you as a leader is choosing the right people to be in your army. The obvious things like a great curriculum, vast experience, etc., are essential but only knowing what people have been trained for is not enough. If you really want to get the best from your troops then dig deeper. Many people have interests and hobbies that go well beyond being simple pastimes. It could be origami, fruit sculptures, ham radio, brain surgery, whatever; knowing what your personnel is capable of is the equivalent of doubling your workforce…not numerically but qualitatively. This obviously helps you define their roles too; everyone in their place and a place for everyone…no one is left behind.

You can have the best people in the world working for you but without communications the battle will be lost. This is the biggest failure that Murphy’s Law loves to take advantage of. Your troops must remain in constant contact with the War Room and with each other. Communicating today is easier than ever before. There are no excuses for anyone remaining out of the loop when critical information needs to be circulated.

FLEXIBILITY: A Reed in the Wind

The saying “A Reed in the Wind” comes to mind when I think about flexibility. Having an ironclad and rigid project may end up being your Achilles’ heel. You need to keep an open mind and be prepared to change direction at any moment in order to circumvent unexpected obstacles.

Genius can often come out of absurdity. You need to promote brainstorming, don’t belittle any ideas, no matter how ridiculous they may seem. If you suffocate your army and stifle creative thinking then don’t expect any one to promote solutions to the potholes Murphy’s Law will put in your way. Instead, by socialising with the troops and learning what else they can do besides their main role, you will be able to quickly recruit to the War Room the right people to brainstorm a unique solution to a unique problem.

RECONNAISSANCE: Monitor Progress

Once the operation is underway you can’t abandon it to itself. Constant monitoring is required from the War Room, the troops in the field and from other sources through feedback. No matter what the mission is about you have a myriad of available observation techniques. Assemble your troops and make sure they are aware that vigilance and immediate reporting is expected from everyone. Set up teams that supervise your internal and external feedback channels so that data can be collected, analysed and addressed in real-time.

The important thing is immediate intervention. Hesitation must be removed from your vocabulary because Murphy’s Law thrives on sluggish response times…dare I say it, shoot first ask questions later.

ALLIES: Know Your Enemy

Even with all your bases covered and your troops ready for action there is still a grey area that Murphy’s Law can’t help but exploit; when you’re backed up to the wall with nowhere to go. The scenario is scary because you have no way of resolving the problem with your own resources. This is when you have to admit defeat and garner the help of your allies. Don’t expect to suddenly call on external help and have the certainty to be bailed out of trouble.

The idea is to already have a network of friends waiting in the wings ready to intervene. Also, these allies should have been briefed prior to the mission so as to be ready and fully armed should the need arise; in short, their roles have to be well defined at the planning stage of the mission. Only then can outside help actually be of real use. Otherwise, putting your trust in the first, third party, that tries to help could actually make the situation worse. Remember, Murphy’s Law has ways of luring you into a false sense of security…

 Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

Sun-tzu – Chinese general & military strategist (~400 BC)  

HISTORY: Look Back to go Forward

Finally, just when you think you’ve won the battle you must remember that the War will always and  inevitably be lost to Murphy’s Law which has been around forever. You may have dodged its bullets this time but you can be sure that next time it may actually hit the target. Your only hope of steering clear of Murphy’s Law for any length of time is to read the history books.

You must log every mission; recording the events as they transpired. Don’t get caught up in self-gratification either. It’s good to record the victories but more importantly, study the losses which will help you be able to plan a better strategy for the next assignment. The best place to keep the historical records is in the War Room as that is where your next battle will take shape.

So, we’ve come full circle with my Six Point Strategic Plan and besieged Murphy’s Law.  With our War Declaration we will hopefully scare away Murphy’s Law to go cause havoc elsewhere and leave us to savour our Victory March.

Enjoy and Happy Battles,

Enzo

Artwork:

Here is a poster to remind you everyday that Murphy’s Law is waiting just around the corner and that it can be defeated most of the time.

Download A4 / A3 pdf version

Download full high resolution png version. LARGE 9.5Mb 3508 x 4961

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14 thoughts on “War on Murphy’s Law

  1. Actually, winning the war on Murphy’s Law is quite simple.

    Murphy’s Law applies critically to a flight to the moon, but not so to your trip downtown. Why? Because there is a correlation between the Law and the size of the planned task. Make the task small enough, and the Law withers away. Repeat the small project many times, and the Law may strike, but to little effect.

    This is called adaptation. Isaiah Berlin posited it in the last century – but he was a historian of ideas, no one paid attention to the practical side of it. Adaptation is coming into its own these days, as one after the other “top-down” solutions fail. One must be clever though, and make each small tep counts.

    The hidden danger is the Hayek-ians, who mistake Brownian motion for perfection. Perfection does not come for free, we must learn from our small steps.

    What do the Chines say? A trip of a thousand li begins with one small step?

    • Excellent spin on the subject, thanks for your comment Dr. Matteucci. I agree that any project, split into smaller bits, will be more manageable and less prone to errors or to Murphy’s Law.

      The military/government tend to divide projects into smaller modules from a security point of view. Even industry does it; look at Apple, it does it so that the development of new hardware/software is not evident to the staff involved…thus avoiding leaking of information. I wouldn’t say that the method is so efficient but that’s a discussion in itself for another occasion.

      The Apollo 13 events really captured my imagination because I don’t consider NASA an amateurish outfit and with all their resources and fragmentation of planning and tasks, things still went terribly wrong. Maybe their ability to think outside the box is what eventually got the astronauts back home safely.

      Adaptation is a key element in my tips, I believe that what I call flexibility is equivalent to adaptation and from a Darwinian perspective, it amounts to evolution of sorts through trial and error. Committing errors in fractions of a larger project shouldn’t bring down the whole “house of cards”. This is why my theorized feasibility study involves trying to calculate fault tolerances.

      Thanks for the tip on Hayek, I’m interested in learning more. Unfortunately, I don’t have much time to research my blog posts. I tend to look back on my own experiences and write off-the-cuff so any pointers on different perspectives is always welcome.

      Take care,
      Enzo

      • Enzo,

        doctor I’m not. I gave up my US-based PhD when, at the end of the research on land use in East Africa, I came up against the wall of “expertise”. I’d come to the conclusion that “experts” were no good, and that the “problem” would be solved through local institutions. I’ve been proven right, both on the land use and the institutions.

        How bad (and mad) experts were there (and then) is easily proven. “Protein deficiency” in the local population was posited as holding back development. No cattle, no meat, no protein was the chain of inevitabilities that was construed. Let’s build ranches (for meat export BTW). Well, except… these vets never climbed atop one of those doddering lorries crossing the dusty plains of Dodoma. They’d seen stacks of stinking stuff: smoke-dried fish that’s put into the gruel. The locals ate their protein fill on local fish, raised in ponds or creeks during the rainy season (the fish burrow into mud for the dry season and survive). The experts were all trying to relive their youth on the ranch – just like the missionaries, planting grapes from the village to save local souls.

        One remark on your last paragraph. With knowledge doubling about every 5 years (despite the loss of embedded know-how) “experience” and “intuition” no longer work. As an “expert” I can tell: little of nothing of what I learned is usable today. And much of the crap I was fed had to be scraped away, painfully. As for intuition, read KAHNEMAN.

        In my blogs you’ll find pointers to counterintuitive reading. Life is only interesting if you stand on two legs of curiosity: professional and personal. Taking MUSASHI’s suggestion: if life presses you and you have to move, move BOTH feet, and find a new equilibrium, rather than adjust the old by weakening it.

        Aldo

  2. Oh, I forgot – you seem to be in awe of NASA. But as the Challenger inquiry proved, the management culture of NASA was deeply flawed. It was not able to accept the “bottom-up” warning from the experts that the O-rings would fail… that’s why I’m wary of top down structures. Apollo 13 succeeded because top management was shunted aside in the emergency.

    As to Apple. Steve Jobs was notoriously short-tempered with his staff. He would savage proposals. When asked: “Waht do you want?” He answered: “When I see it, I’ll know!” so much for “top down”.

  3. Hello Aldo and welcome back,

    I’m grateful to you for taking the time to converse with me and commenting on the article. I must admit that your experiences are very interesting and enlightening. Your adventures in Africa are fascinating and I can feel the passion (and pain) in your recounting that reads like a novel…the sad part being that it was very real for you and our African friends dying of hunger and disease.

    I admit that with the last paragraph of my post I was a bit shortsighted. Thinking back to when I wrote the post I remember having in mind two visions; the first, relating to my civil servant job. My Office environment (in three different countries) hasn’t changed much in 20+ years; computers replaced typewriters and are getting ever faster [and breaking easier], email has replaced snail-mail and the working day is more hectic. The rest, unfortunately, is same old, same old. Methods have changed little and any new laws or procedures always appear to get more ambiguous and impracticable. What I hate most is that change for the better would be so easy, too easy. No, the status quo is much too convenient for the naysayer and to assist those who survive by speculating on inefficiency.

    My second observation point was more in keeping with the military theme of the post. I recall reading that even today’s highly sophisticated military still analyse famous ancient battles to learn from the Great Strategists of yore. In the end I had to keep the post pretty broad as I was limited by the accompanying artwork with the military theme, wanting to merge art and prose I’m finding that form doesn’t always follow function.

    Sorry, I digress, back to your comment. You are right however; in most other professions life goes on and the future is a fast moving target the cannot always be built on the past. I have my own little saying that goes: If you look back to see the crap you just stepped in, you’ll probably step in more when you turn around. Not sure if it’s ever been said by anyone but it works for me as a daily reminder to keep pressing forward even if I step in the proverbial from time to time.

    To finish off, I wouldn’t say that I’m so much in awe of NASA (or Roscosmos, ESA, etc.), it is more a case of respect for a lot of unsung heroes that have dedicated [and given] their lives to space exploration. It’s the same respect I have for anyone who does anything passionately. If anything, I’ve always been quite opposed to the amount of interaction government and military have in all the space agencies. I totally agree with you Aldo, if the “workers” hadn’t taken matters into their own hands I’m sure NASA or whoever would have had a lot more blood on their hands to account for today.

    Ok, thanks once again for the chat, it was educational.

    Enzo 🙂

    • Enzo,

      I’ll be short. Since Homer’s time we worship heroes. We make irreversible contracts with them: they die, we sing them. Three thousand years later we still worship them, and their descendants. It’s time we put hero worship to rest. It’s the people, stupid! who took us where we are today, by trial and error and adapting all the way.

      BTW: heroes? You know why they were all running after Helen? Not for her tits – you’d buy better ones in the slave market. Greece then was a matriarchal society, and poor Menelaus could only be king and rule if she was at his side, for she determined descendancy. Once she’s gone, he’s a goner too – that’s why widower Laertes has reverted to tending goats and sheep, while Penelope was being wooed by the various suitors.

      If I understand your profile, you work (or worked) for the Farnesina. Where tradition meets status quo. One of your colleauges bemoaned the fact that work has withered to issuing press communiques. You have a case of ghostly ghastly memes having taken over the whole organisation like Indian jinns. When and why they’ll evolve, I don’t know, Just keep at it, remembering Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again, Fail better.”

      Finally, your English is the best I ever encountered in a MFA chap from Italy. Then I realised you must have been brought up in the UK. And you went back to the serpentone?

      Aldo

  4. Grazie Aldo,

    In reality I’m not much for hero worshiping either; I just threw the word in casually. I know I spun my other post “leave a footprint…” on the Armstrong hero theme but in fact it was Randy Conley’s blog that inspire it. In fact, I do mention that he was an ordinary guy and that’s why he could be an example to young managers, and not because he’s a national hero.

    In fact, I’ve never been bothered when I’ve met so-called important people…be they politicians, sporting or entertainment celebrities. If I like someone, I like them, if not I’m not one to fake friendship. I want to respect the person for their humanity and not because they flaunt a certain position in life.

    Thank you for the language compliment. You are correct, I grew up in Anglo-Saxon countries but my ancestry is Italian…I still work for the MFA…the travelling aspect used to appeal to me but it is getting tiresome.. The downside is a lack of national identity but perhaps that’s a good thing in the world we live in today.

    All the best,
    Enzo

    • Elephant???
      HE is LORD Ganesh,
      the Indian divibity
      in one of its popular image versions
      reading the Ramayana

      BTW, HE paid for the scarf Himself
      I bought the scarf
      I checked the lottery
      I’d won the amount back

      aldo

  5. My bad [whipping myself violently], I should have recognized Ganesh considering all the Indian friends I used to have back in the UK. My vision must have been obscured by that fine scarf and too much cheap beer. 😉

    More seriously though, that’s a great karma anecdote…he must have truly appreciated the gift.

    Have a great day,
    Enzo

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