This is how Murphy’s Law helps you in project management

Dealing with difficulties with the right attitude

"Anything that can go wrong will go wrong." Murphy's Law

We all know days when everything that can go wrong does go wrong. We oversleep in the morning even though we have an important appointment, we accidentally spill coffee on our clothes, the bike we wanted to ride to work has a flat tyre, and at work, when we start up the computer, we find that it first installs a lengthy update, only to discover that the currently most important project employee has called in sick. In such moments, Murphy’s Law is often quoted.

What is Murphy’s Law?

Murphy’s Law goes back to the engineer Captain Edward A. Murphy, who was involved in a research experiment with the US Air Force in the 1940s. The aim of this experiment was to find out how much acceleration the human body could withstand. To do this, sensors had to be attached to the test subjects’ heads, for which there were exactly two possibilities: the correct position and a wrong position, twisted by 90°. Unfortunately, the experiment failed because someone had connected all the sensors incorrectly. Murphy concluded, “If there are multiple ways to do a task and one of them ends in disaster or otherwise has undesirable consequences, someone will do it exactly that way.”

The oft-quoted short version of this is, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”
But there are also numerous variations:

  • If there is a wrong way to do something, someone will do it that way.
  • If different things can go wrong, the one that causes the most damage will go wrong.
  • If something can’t go wrong, it will anyway.

There are even gradients to this. Finagle’s Law, for example, states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong – at the worst of all moments. And Peter Drucker was convinced that if one thing goes wrong, everything else will go wrong at the same time.

How much truth is there in Murphy’s Law?

Murphy’s Law is of course not a true law of nature, even though it is often associated with the laws of thermodynamics. The second law of thermodynamics states that systems always tend towards a disorganised state, which is rather undesirable. Captain Murphy himself, however, may simply have meant with his insight that things sometimes go wrong – whether we want them to or not.
Why we often invoke Murphy’s Law as an explanation when things go wrong is obvious: at that moment, the law seems to be confirmed for us. If things go successfully, we usually don’t question it. However, if something does not work as planned, we look for a reason. We often ask ourselves why something like this is happening to us or why it is happening now. In this case, Murphy’s Law comes in handy as a reason.

Positive effects of Murphy’s Law

Although it may not seem like it at first, Murphy’s Law has some positive aspects that can help you in project management:

  • if something goes wrong, the law can provide comfort
  • if it is clear that not everything will work out, possible difficulties and risks can be considered in advance and countermeasures can be initiated.
  • failures can be accepted more quickly and mentally ticked off.

Positive interpretation: I accept that things will go wrong – regardless of how hard I try. I can try to take measures against risks in advance and seek a solution when problems arise.

Negative effects of Murphy’s Law

  • if one sees Murphy’s Law as an irrefutable law of nature, then one believes that failures are pre-programmed and cannot be averted. This can lead to a passive position.
  • people who think this way feel defenceless against the world, may give up and come to terms with the situation. Thus, such persons make no further attempts to move things forward and deny themselves freedom of action.
  • often this leads to a cynical view of life

Negative interpretation: I believe that I can’t change anything because everything goes wrong anyway. I am at the mercy of the world.

How can Murphy’s Law be dealt with in project management?

The positive interpretation is much better suited in project management, as it allows you to remain capable of acting. Here are some tips on how to practice this positive interpretation:

1. Practice optimism

If you look optimistically into the future, you assume positive results and progress. Even if not everything works out, this view has many advantages: The basic mood is better and unforeseen events cause less stress.

2. Consider facts

When something fails, it is easy to conclude that it is Murphy’s Law. But if you look at the facts, you quickly realise that negative events don’t happen that often. How often does it actually happen that you oversleep, spill your coffee or get a flat tyre? And how often does everything go smoothly in comparison?

3. Adjust expectations

Of course, we all want our projects to run smoothly. But the reality is usually different. There are things that work perfectly and others where everything goes wrong. In addition, there are lots of things that lie somewhere in the middle. If we are aware of this, we can deal with setbacks better. Even when a real run of bad luck is coming up, we are reminded that sooner or later things will work out perfectly again.

4. Preventing negativity bias

People are more likely to perceive negatives than positives. This is called negativity bias. For example, hardly anyone notices that their computer boots up in the morning without any problems. The occasional morning update that delays the start of work, however, remains well in our memory. Take this realisation as an opportunity to also pay attention to the positive processes and no longer take them for granted.

5. Look ahead

If thanks to Murphy’s Law you are aware that all kinds of problems can come your way in a project, you can deal with them proactively:

  • think about where difficulties may arise and do a risk analysis
  • take reasonable measures against the risks
  • manage projects with foresight and vigilance, as unforeseen problems can arise at any time. Good project controlling and the use of the most important project reports help here.
  • don’t let problems throw you off course, but actively look for solutions
  • in a risk analysis, also play through worst-case scenarios so that you are prepared for as many eventualities as possible
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Conclusion

Murphy’s Law is a constant reminder to project managers that not everything will work out optimally. It gives us comfort when things go wrong and helps us to look at problems with composure. At the same time, it tells us to prepare as well as possible for contingencies and to anticipate risks.

Project management software with integrated risk and opportunity management helps you plan ahead and take the right measures for your project. Since risk analysis and assessment are automatically updated during the project, you can also react optimally to newly emerging problems. In addition, the system helps you to conveniently check your measures for their success. Ideally, such PM software also offers integrated task management.

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