murphys-law

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.

Connected Business Concepts

Heuristics

heuristic
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.

Bounded Rationality

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.

Second-Order Thinking

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
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.

Moonshot Thinking

moonshot-thinking
Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.

Biases

biases
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.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

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

occams-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

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

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

Bandwagon Effect

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 is marketing can be associated with social proof.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger

Read Next: Heuristics, Biases.

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