Performance Management Blog

Murphy's Law, Reframed

Murphy’s Law is pretty basic and to the point:

Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

As to its origins go back to Capt. Edward Murphy and his work at Edwards Air Force Base back in 1949. (You can read more about this on another post of mine.) The story goes that one day, after finding that an electronics component was wired wrong, he cursed the technician responsible and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”  The contractor’s project manager who was keeping a list of similar “laws” added that one to his list, which he called Murphy’s Law. It then appeared in that contractor’s advertisement and the rest is history.

We’ve been playing with this basic concept for 20+ years, but just in a slightly different and more actionable context. It looks like this:

SWs One - Murphy and RWs

Recently, I posted up a couple of cartoons and one in particular merited a bit of discussion, I think, since it links up so well to the real world application of Murphy’s Law and how it impacts people and performance in the workplace.

Consider this illustration and caption for a moment:

Trial and Error Murphy's Law words

Note that I said Maybe. And DO think about the illustration itself for more than a minute – otherwise you will miss the key learning point.

The illustration is one that I call, “Trial and Error” and I have written extensively on the issues surrounding the common view of this by most managers and organizational leadership. You can find more on this theme here.

Murphy’s Law states that things will go wrong. That seems to be a pretty common occurrence. Tightly linked corollaries to The Law include:

  • Nothing is as easy as it looks.
  • Everything takes longer than you think.
  • If there is a worse time for something to go wrong, it will happen then.
  • Left to themselves, things tend to go from bad to worse.
  • Nothing is ever so bad that it cannot get worse.
  • Whenever you set out to do something, something else must be done first.

Viewed in the context of the above, many people looking at the illustration above will see all the problems and issues. They will point out the negative and what should have been done differently. But there is most certainly another side of this. There is the issue of continuous continuous improvement and the reality of how innovation really works.

Sure, the team might have done things perfectly the first time. And we can probably generate another four or five things that they could have accomplished in this iteration of the problem solving. They could have already put on some Round Wheels and they probably could have put the horse at the front. But consider the reality that they are now using a horse and that they have stepped back far enough from their wagon to see that the Round Wheels do already exist!

Now, they need to invent some device or some approach to actually mount those round wheels and maybe fill them with air and maybe adapt the axles to the tire rims. The Reality of Change is not that simple and elegant model that you think might work; change tends to actually operate more like this:

Reality of Change round yellow

Maybe they can find a different way to involve the horse and they can implement a way to thus steer the direction that the wagon goes. One broken Square Wheel can find one Round Wheel as a replacement and that may lead to other things as time goes on. Heck, maybe they can eventually hook up another wagon to the back and invent the train!

Innovation and invention is full of Trial and Error and probably many cycles of it. Understand that some people put a LOT of effort into helping to try or implement new things and make workplace changes and improvement. In many organizations, though, the reality of change is one of risk-taking and opening oneself up to criticism, disdain and derision.

Note that two other Murphy’s Law Corollaries are:

  • Any  problem can be overcome given enough time and money. But you are never given enough time or money.
  • All truth passes through three stages: first it is ridiculed, then violently opposed and eventually, accepted as self-evident. (Schopenhauer)

Improvement is about perspective, continuous ideation, constant trial and re-invention. It is about team support and celebration. It is also about getting the support of leadership, which often really requires money and time. It is about the celebration of all of the improvements made to generate momentum for future improvements.

Celebration key to involving me

So, that simple cartoon that we started with is chock full of a wide variety of different themes and messages. I’ll end with an old quote from the NLP literature:

If we always do what we have always done,
we will always get what we have always gotten.

As leaders, parents and managers, we need to support innovation and improvement, and sometimes that just happens when things break and we are forced to do things differently. It is much easier to criticise new ideas because we are sure that the old way works pretty much okay. And a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world!


For the FUN of It!

Elegant Solutions

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant. 
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Dr. Scott Simmerman

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of the amazing Lost Dutchman's Gold Mine team building game and the Square Wheels facilitation and engagement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced global presenter. -- You can reach Scott at and a detailed profile is here: -- Scott is the original designer of The Search for The Lost Dutchman's Gold Mine teambuilding game and the Square Wheels® images for organizational development.

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