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,
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.