Murphy's Law: Ready for the Inevitable?

  1. Home
  2. >
  3. Blog
  4. >
  5. Risk Management
  6. >
  7. Murphy's Law: Ready for the Inevitable?

Risks materialize at times, and we need to be prepared before they occur. In this article, we delve into how Edward Murphy, or the law he coined back in the 1940s, inspires us to implement a proper risk management strategy in our projects.

Table of Contents

What can we learn from Murphy?

The famous Murphy’s Law couldn’t be clearer: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” This law is responsible for your toast landing butter-side down or for the day you decide to wash your car being the exact day it rains heavily or, worse, just a few droplets that make it even dirtier.

The aerospace engineer behind it was Edward A. Murphy Jr., who, in the 1940s, worked on rocket safety for the United States Air Force. After a failed experiment with incorrectly installing two sensors, he expressed his frustration by stating this famous law. Although originally intended to highlight the importance of designing any piece or product in such a way that incorrect assembly would be impossible, Murphy’s law has rooted itself in popular consciousness as an inevitability of fate. This statement can be extended to a wide range of contexts, including project management.

The moral of this story is that we should be prepared to face potential problems and thus prevent Murphy’s prophecy from coming true. This is where risk management comes into play, a powerful tool designed to foresee and mitigate potential obstacles that hinder achieving our project’s objectives.

If we apply risk management to Murphy’s Law, we shift from “If anything can go wrong, it will” to “If something can go wrong, it might, but I’ll be prepared to prevent or mitigate it.”

By adapting Murphy’s Law to risk management, we aim to be proactive. The key is to anticipate potential challenges, have a set plan to confront them, and avoid reacting only when problems have materialized. Anticipation is the fundamental pillar of Risk Management. Without this foresight, we would constantly find ourselves immersed in problem management, something we aim to avoid.

If we apply risk management to Murphy’s Law, we shift from:

If anything can go wrong, it will.

to…

If something can go wrong, it might, but I'll be prepared to prevent or mitigate it.

By adapting Murphy’s Law to risk management, we aim to be proactive. The key is to anticipate potential challenges, have a set plan to confront them, and avoid reacting only when problems have materialized. Anticipation is the fundamental pillar of Risk Management. Without this foresight, we would constantly find ourselves immersed in problem management, something we aim to avoid.

Applying Risk Management by Going Back in Time

If we were to go back to the 1940s when Murphy had the issue with his rocket sensors, we might have even prevented him from imagining and inventing this popular law. How could we have achieved that? The best course of action would have been to conduct a risk management assessment during the rocket design phase, but since it wasn’t done at that time, let’s analyze what we could have done if we had been working hand in hand with Murphy back then.

Step 1: Raising Awareness

Firstly, we could have raised awareness and trained the team on the importance of preempting problems to detect them in time. Once convinced of this, we would explain the types of strategies that can be used for each identified risk: escalate, transfer, mitigate, avoid, or accept. In most cases, the aim would be to reduce the impact (which is the meaning of mitigate) or entirely avoid the risk.

Step 2: Choosing a Strategy

Next, after identifying the risk of incorrectly placing the sensors with enough margin to solve it before it becomes a problem, we could have implemented a series of actions, commonly termed as “mitigation actions” when choosing to mitigate the risk. The collection of these actions forms the action plan. In risk management, a chart called a “Waterfall Chart” is often used to visualize how we are gradually decreasing the risk’s criticality with different steps of the action plan as time progresses.

So, what could we have done with Murphy’s sensor risk already identified, now that we understand the theory better?

First, it would have been vital to gather all stakeholders, everyone involved in sensor installation, to develop our action plan. By collaborating in this way, better ideas for mitigating risk will be shared, and greater commitment will be achieved in the implementation of proposed actions, reducing their criticality more efficiently until the desired goal is reached.

Step 3: Implementing an Action Plan

Next, we would have needed to determine the root cause of our problem, which is that not all workers installing the sensors know the correct way to install them. Therefore, we could implement the following actions:

Action 1: Determine a fixed and unique position for sensor installation to avoid incorrect placement.

This could be ensured through a mark indicating the correct position, for example. This way, there would be no doubts, and the possibility of a misplaced sensor installation would be limited.

Once this information is clear, a retrospective would be done, verifying all the work completed and correcting any poor installations. From here, the next three actions would arise:

Action 2: Verify all already installed sensors.

Action 3: Correctly re-install any misplaced sensors.

Action 4: Verify the entire sensor system. To consider the risk mitigated, we could check the proper functioning of all sensors with this last action ensuring that the proposed solution yields the expected result.

If we assign a target completion date or “target date” to each action along with an achieved criticality level when the action is completed, we can build the Waterfall Chart. Assuming that initially, when we identify the risk, we have a very high criticality (indicated by the first white point on the chart), we can see how, the criticality of each action decreases successively from high to medium and low criticality.

Conclusion

We’ll never know if an exercise like this would have prevented us from enjoying Murphy’s famous law today, and if so, we would have missed blaming it for the bad luck in our daily lives. Still, we’ve surely raised awareness on the importance of anticipation and implementing good risk management.

And as they say, anyone who doesn’t want to talk about risks probably already has too many problems.

We’ve focused a lot on risks in this article, but we have to highlight that Risk Management addresses both risks and opportunities. So, remember that risk management is not just a response to “something will go wrong,” but also a way to turn problems into opportunities to strengthen ourselves against life’s challenges.

This article was written by María Correas Quijano, Iratxe Sánchez García, and Ricardo Sánchez Pastor

Share on Linkedin