Murphy’s Law

Expecting the Unexpected

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Expect the unexpected.

Does the phone always ring when you're just dashing out of the door?

Does your PC crash when you're in the middle of writing that really important piece of work and you haven't saved for 20 minutes?

And if you're planning to get the decorative lights out for your seasonal celebration at the last minute, just what do you think is going to happen when you test them?

Now, here at Mind Tools, we often emphasize that feeling out of control is a major factor in feeling stressed. So if you feel out of control when events like those described above occur, and this raises your stress levels – here's the good news that can help you get back in control: A theory exists that predicts these kinds of event, and when they occur. It's called Murphy's Law.

Understanding the Theory

In its simplest form, Murphy's Law states: If anything can go wrong, it will. However, as with many successful business theories, the original law has been extended over time to cover specialist areas, several of which are given below:

  • Project Planning: If anything can go wrong, it will. Usually at the most inopportune time.
  • Performance Management: If someone can get it wrong, they will.
  • Risk Assessment: If several things can go wrong, the one you would LEAST like to happen will occur.
  • Practical creativity: If you can think of four ways that something can go wrong, it will go wrong in a fifth way.

Origins of the Law

Believe it or not, Edward J Murphy was a real person. No, really. In fact, he was a Major in the US Air Force in the 1940s, specializing in development engineering. As much of his work involved testing experimental designs, he was frequently faced with things that didn't exactly go to plan. Scholars differ on precisely what words were originally used when the phrase "Murphy's Law" was first coined, but the meaning is clear.

Furthermore, as Murphy and his team were breaking new ground, they were unable to rely on the kind of tried-and-tested procedures used effectively elsewhere in the military to ensure zero defects. As a result, they had to depend on their own initiative to get things right, and one team member in particular could virtually be relied upon to step on the proverbial banana skin. This almost certainly led to the Performance Management application of Murphy's Law given above.

(Some people believe that Murphy's Law was first proposed by a guy named Sod and the law should be called after him accordingly.)

How to Use the Tool

You feel stressed when events that you did not expect to happen occur. And your stress is increased when this happens at the least ideal time. To reduce the stress you feel, you need to take back control!

The following steps will allow you to predict the outcome, and because you are initiating the event, you also know when it will occur. As you go through the steps, your confidence will increase thanks to your application of Murphy's Law.

Step 1:

Butter a piece of toast.

Step 2:

Think of two or more things that could happen if you dropped it.

Are any of these more likely to happen if you are wearing suede shoes or are about to set off for a job interview or meet your prospective parents-in-law?

Step 3:

Drop the toast.

Step 4:

Say "Hmm, I thought that would happen", and allow a smile to spread across your face. You are in control!

When to Use the Tool

There are many other situations where you can easily apply Murphy's Law to regain control. Here are some situations when you might want to try it:

  • Next time you lose something important, expect that you will find it in the last place you look. Don't be tempted to cut corners by looking there first, though.
  • When standing in line in a large store with multiple checkouts, expect the other lines to move faster. Try moving to a shorter line as many times as you like, but always expect it to become the slowest.
  • If your laptop has been misbehaving and you take it to your IT Department, expect it to work perfectly when the IT guy tries it out.

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Here's an example of how Murphy's Law can help when things go wrong.

Simon L Tod had recently been promoted to the role of Production Manager at a toy manufacturer. He felt honored to have been chosen, and knew it was because he had always worked hard. But as the peak production season loomed, he was feeling more and more stressed. Things kept happening that he wasn't expecting, and they always seemed to go wrong at 5pm on a Friday, or just as the team were starting work on an urgent order.

Simon mentioned his concerns to his boss, who suggested he apply Murphy's Law to his work to identify what would go wrong and when.

So, on Monday Morning, Simon drew up a list of the key things he had to do that week, when they needed to be completed by, and some of the ways they could go wrong. He also estimated the likelihood of things going wrong in this way. His list included the following items:

Task Schedule Risks
Stuff batch of 1,000 teddy bears Delivery to Customer by 8am on Wednesday Stuffing machine will break (10% chance)
Stuffing Machine operative off sick (5%)
Courier company won't deliver on time (5% chance)
Assemble 2,000 toy cars 1 to boss for his son's birthday (on Friday). Remainder to Customer any time on Friday. Wheel supplier sends wheels late (20% chance)
Wheel supplier sends wrong size wheels (10% chance)

On Monday, everything progressed to plan. It was all looking good on Tuesday morning too. But after lunch, when there were still 200 teddy bears to stuff, Simon was called to the workshop by an anxious Quality Control Supervisor who was holding quite the lumpiest teddy bear he'd ever seen.

Simon picked the toy up and squeezed it. Instead of being soft and cuddly, it seemed to be filled with solid items that crunched against each other. Soon, all became clear: the stuffing machine operator had managed to fill the teddy bear stuffing machine hopper with car wheels. The machine had broken these up as they passed through it, but it had still managed to fill the bears. All of the car wheels were now in little fragments; Mostly inside furry bear bellies.

As Simon stood holding the crunchy bear, he saw the courier company van draw up outside the loading bay doors. He now realized that Murphy's Law had predicted that something other than the risks he'd predicted would go wrong, just before the deadline. This allowed him to stay calm and think fast.

He got his packaging supervisor to print out extra labels to put on each bear's box, offering $200 to the first purchaser who sent a bear back to the factory, un-tampered with, correctly identifying what the bear was filled with. The crunchy bear line turned out to be one of the company's bestsellers that year.

Simon ordered more wheels from his supplier, who thought the teddy bear story was so funny that he gave Simon an excellent discount, not only on the repeat order but on future orders of the wheels too.

That left one problem to resolve – a little boy's birthday present. The new batch of wheels couldn't get to the factory till Friday morning – which was too late. So Simon suggested that his boss bring his son down to the factory after school on Friday for a special treat – to see his new car have its wheels fitted. The little boy was thrilled and so didn't mind the fact he'd not has his present at breakfast that morning.

By apply Murphy's Law, and expecting the unexpected, Simon L Tod remained in control throughout a week that would otherwise have proved to be very stressful. Try it yourself today!

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