Murphy’s Law In A Nutshell

Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Murphy’s Law was named after aerospace engineer Edward A. Murphy. During his time working at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949, Murphy cursed a technician who had improperly wired an electrical component and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

Understanding Murphy’s Law

After hearing the remarks, the technician’s project manager called it Murphy’s Law.

Murphy’s Law describes those days in life where everything seems to go wrong. 

Perhaps the alarm clock failed to go off on the morning of an important presentation. Or maybe the best salesman in the organization goes home sick minutes before a crucial client meeting. Whatever the event, it is largely beyond the control of the individual or business.

Indeed, it is how a business responds to Murphy’s Law that will give it a competitive edge.

Managing the impact of Murphy’s Law

When things go wrong in a business, the cause can be tracked to six factors: human, process, policy, equipment, materials, or environment.

Once the cause has been identified, the business should evaluate its systems and develop best practices to minimize risk.

For example:

  • Does the business have routine checklists to ensure consistency?
  • Does the business have an appropriate equipment maintenance protocol?
  • How is the business turning customer complaints into opportunities for growth?
  • Is the business proficient in human resource management? Are employees suitably trained, skilled, or motivated?
  • Is important data backed up? Are important processes or innovations patented to guard against the competition?

Murphy’s Three Laws of Business Continuity

Murphy’s Law has been adapted to business with two additional laws. 

Let’s look at each:

  1. Murphy’s First Law – “If it can go wrong, it will go wrong.” In business, the first law highlights the importance of risk assessment and the value of spending money on risk mitigation.
  2. Murphy’s Second Law – “If it cannot possibly go wrong, it’ll still go wrong.” No matter how much time or money is spent on risk mitigation, it is impossible to eliminate all of them. Given enough time, something with a very small probability of occurring becomes increasingly likely. Business continuity plans should be developed to ensure that the recovery from a negative event is as swift as possible.
  3. Murphy’s Third Law – “Life happens.” Accepting that life is beyond their control is important for businesses. While continuity plans are vital, they do not make a business immune to negative events. Background levels of operational risk should always be communicated to management and key stakeholders.

Murphy’s law examples

Here are some examples of Murphy’s law in action which you may be able to relate to.

Computer malfunction

Almost everyone can remember a situation where a computer has decided to crash or reboot itself in the middle of an important presentation.

Inopportune calls

Have you ever waited all morning for an important call, only to give up waiting and have the client ring while you are in the middle of eating your lunch?

This is a classic and all too familiar example of Murphy’s law at work.

Caught in the act

You’ve spent all day working on an important project and by 4 pm you are suffering from intense social media withdrawal.

The minute you decide to stop work and check your phone, the boss walks into your office and catches you being unproductive.

Why couldn’t he walk in when you were hard at work?

Project management

In project management, there is a common adage which states that “The first 90% of a project takes 90% of the time. The last 10% takes the other 90% of the time.”

Office décor 

Office employees attempt to revitalize an unfrequented area of the office with some new indoor plants in terracotta pots.

Only a week after they are installed, contractors who need access to a storeroom in the area to carry out repairs knock the plants on the floor and smash the pots.

Supermarket queues

We’ve all been in a situation at the supermarket where we are standing in line watching the adjacent line move more quickly.

We debate the merits of joining the other queue before doing so impatiently. 

As soon as we join the new queue, someone ahead of us drops all their coins on the ground or has their credit card declined. The line we were originally standing in starts to move faster as a result.

Real estate

While a real estate agent is showing a house to an interested buyer, a once-in-a-century storm overwhelms the roof gutters and causes water to pool inside. 

Wedding videography

Consider a wedding videographer who is filming the bride and groom exchange vows right as a noisy aircraft flies overhead.

This is another example of Murphy’s law and its propensity to be associated with perfectly imperfect timing.

Intermittent vehicle malfunction

Car ownership can either be very enjoyable or endlessly irritating.

Have you ever tolerated a constant rattle or noise coming from somewhere in the engine, only to have the problem disappear once you take it to the mechanic?

Key takeaways

  • Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong.
  • The impacts of Murphy’s Law cannot be controlled, but they can be managed. By understanding the six causes of unforeseen events, a business can develop risk-managing systems for each.
  • Murphy’s Law in business is sometimes seen with two additional laws. The second law states that things will still go wrong, no matter how hard a business tries to eliminate risk. The third law dictates that some level of risk should be factored into doing business. This should then be communicated to management and key stakeholders.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger

Read Next: Heuristics, Biases.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Maslow’s Hammer

Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.

Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Recognition Heuristic

The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.

Take-The-Best Heuristic

The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Bundling Bias

The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger

Read Next: Bounded RationalityHeuristics

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