Straight Talk

Dec. 21, 2004
Murphy's laws are poor excuses for mismanagement

I learned the true story of the origin of Murphy's Law from Arthur Bloch's book, Murphy's Law and Other Reasons Why Things Go Wrong (1977, Price/Stern/Sloan). George E. Nicholas named the infamous law. The year was 1949. The place, Edwards Air Force Base, Muroc, Calif., during Air Force Project MX981. The law's namesake, Capt. Ed Murphy, was a development engineer who worked for the Wright Field Aircraft Lab. Frustrated by a transducer that was malfunctioning because of an error in wiring, Murphy remarked: "If there is any way to do it wrong, he will." Murphy was referring to the anonymous technician who had wired the equipment. Nicholas, who was Northrop Aircraft's project manager on the job, immediately labeled Murphy's offhand remark "Murphy's Law." Within a matter of months, it became everybody's favorite excuse for incompetence. Murphology mavens went maniac. The inventive minds of the nation's testiest technocrats, craziest computer cuckoos, and most mischievous mathemagicians gave birth to scores of Murphy stepchildren such as the Peter Principle, Klipstein's Corollary, Skinner's Constant, Zymurgy's Laws, and the Pollyanna Principle, followed by Boob's Law, the Laws of Applied Confusion, Frothingham's Fallacy, and Pardo's Postulates. Murphy's Law became the mantra for mismanagement. The eternal excuse for the inexcusable. The guiltless guile of the gullible. And the everlasting opiate of the managerial malpractitioner. To explain errors in judgment, they offered Murphyisms such as: "If anything can go wrong, it will." To explain why they muffed an important deadline, they used this Murphyism: "Everything takes longer than you think." To explain poor planning: "Every solution breeds new problems." Murphy apostles improvised variations on the master's theme. O'Toole's Commentary on Murphy's Law proclaimed that "Murphy was an optimist." Zymurgy's seventh exception to Murphy's Law advised that "When it rains, it pours." Boling's Postulate warned: "If you're feeling good, don't worry. You'll get over it." New failures now could be excused with profound observations such as Chisholm's Laws: "When things can't get any worse, they will." And, "Anytime things appear to be going better, you have overlooked something." In this flurry of self-exoneration, what was being overlooked was the need for better thinking, better planning, better people, better execution, and, yes, better management. Finagle's First Law says: "If an experiment works, something has gone wrong." His Second Law warns: "No matter what the anticipated result, there will always be someone eager to (a) misinterpret it, (b) fake it, or (c) believe it happened according to his own pet theory." Finagle's Third Law explains: "In any collection of data, the figure most obviously correct, beyond all need of checking, is the mistake. No one you ask for help will see it. And everyone who offers unsought advice will see it immediately." But Finagle's Fourth Law concludes pessimistically that "Once a job is fouled up, anything done to improve it only makes it worse." I lack the intestinal fortitude to suggest that anyone should finagle with any of Finagle's Laws. There is no need to. There already are numerous other excuses you can use to cover your assets. Murphy's Law of Thermodynamics reminds us that "Things get worse under pressure." And Ehrman's Commentary warns that "Things always get worse before they get better." But I ask, "Who says they will get better?" Murphy warns that "Nature always sides with the hidden flaw." Simon's Law states, "Everything put together falls apart sooner or later." But not to worry! Marino's Law of Management offers this smidgen of hope: "Things that fall apart create opportunities for managers who don't." Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Media Inc., an IW contributing editor, and the author of the recently published book Management Rhymes and Reason. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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