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Conversations In Management: Edward A. Murphy, Jr. - Murphy's Law

   By: George Ebert

"If there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those ways can result in catastrophe, then someone will do it." -Captain Edward A. Murphy, Jr.

Almost everyone's heard of Murphy's Law, but most folks don't realize that there really was a Murphy. In 1949, Captain Murphy, USAF, was working on a rocket-sled project to determine the extent of human tolerances in the abrupt deceleration of a crash. One experiment involved attaching 16 accelerometers to a test subject's harness. Setting up the experiment took a lot of people a lot of time. But when the sled went rocketing down the track, the 16 devices produced zero readings. Upon examination, it was discovered that one of Murphy's technicians had installed all of the accelerometers backwards. It was at this point that the good Captain spontaneously formulated his now famous law.

As it happened, a contractor working on the project kept a personal notebook of interesting remarks he overheard. Chuckling over the Captain's outburst, he added the quote to his book and labeled it Murphy's Law. Things might have ended at this point, but a few days later Captain John Stapp—the rocket-sled's rider—brought it up during a press conference. Responding to a question about the project's excellent safety record, he attributed it to a firm belief in Murphy's Law and the team's efforts to circumvent it. The aerospace industry loved the concept and used it in their advertising campaigns. From there, it was picked up by the media and widely quoted in print and on air.

Pessimists view Murphy's Law as nothing more than an angry officer chewing out an errant technician. Optimists, however, recognize that the captain was actually describing the principle of defensive design—something every leader should keep in mind. The principle suggests that things should always be designed in a way that limits the chance of error by end users. For example, there are four ways to load a diskette into a PC. One gives you the result you want and three lead to disaster. A CD, however, provides only two options. Assuming that, if there's a wrong way to do something, someone will; the defensive design of the CD not only limits the likelihood of error, but diminishes the consequences as well.

For leaders, defensive design is a matter of paying attention to the things that can cause you trouble and correcting for them in advance. Whenever you make an assignment, give feedback or provide instructions, there's a chance you'll be misunderstood. The more specific you are about expectations, time frames and outcomes, the more likely you are to get the results you want. By staying attuned to the variations, options and interpretations that can lead to error, you're being proactive and essentially swapping a diskette for a CD. You may still encounter problems, but they'll be less frequent and less severe.

On last thing about Murphy: most of us think of Murphy's Law as, “If it can go wrong it will.” But this folk version is actually Finagle's Law and was popularized by science fiction writer Larry Niven. You see, Edward Murphy never actually spoke the words we've come to know as Murphy's Law. It would seem Murphy's Law, as astute readers have undoubtedly noticed, has become a victim of Murphy's Law.

About the Author:

George Ebert is the President of Trinity River Seminars and Consulting, a firm specializing in the custom design and delivery of team building, personal growth and ethical development programs. Mr. Ebert is a highly sought after speaker, educator, and consultant with over thirty years experience in both the public and private sectors. He has presented widely throughout the Unites States. George is the author of the management cult classic, "Climbing From the Fifth Station: A guide to building teams that work!"


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