Worst Possible Set Of Circumstances

I had the privilege of working on a project on which every day another set of undesired outcomes appeared. This was a hell of a project. Over budget and behind schedule, it was easy to identify the symptoms of what did go wrong. The root causes were harder to identify.

Staffing was not a problem. There was an abundance of people working on the project. At some points, over 250 people were toiling in the 250,000 square feet of space. There was ample management and supervision, with over 26 managers and supervisors from seven different companies. There were ample detailed drawings. There was a project schedule, which was also quite detailed.   

Still, despite all these resources, this was a project on which Murphy’s Law ruled the day. 

Asked to describe the project by a fellow member of the Association of Professional Material Handing Consultants (APMHC), I said “After Murphy decided to set up camp on the site, he sent for the entire Murphy clan to come and visit, including his cousin Sod from the UK.”


Sod’s law?  

Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. 

Sod’s law: If something can go wrong, it will, at the worst possible time.

The actual Edward Murphy did not even coin the phrase we know today. To be sure, Sod is not optimistic either.

There are many stories behind Murphy’s Law, and enough documentation to support the story that there really was a Murphy. The truth, however, is that Murphy never really recorded the law; it was other engineers working on Project MX981 who recorded what Murphy actually said when he placed the blame for a failed strap transducer on a junior technician; he said that if there were a way for the guy to do something wrong, that is the way he would do it.

The engineering team testing the rocket sleds at the then Muroc Army Air Force Base in 1947 remembered what Murphy had said. Murphy was there for only a few days, and after he left, testing continued as the Project MX981 team attempted to learn about how much G force the human body could withstand. Murphy was miffed that the sensors had been installed wrong, but the rest of the team took it as just another lesson. When something went wrong, the team distributed their findings to everyone else in the program. At the line traveled, it morphed from a line of blame into a line of knowledge,  from “if there’s any way they can do it wrong, they will’ into the more demonstrative “if anything can go wrong, it will.”

The idea became a law with a quip by the Project MX981 leader, John Paul Stapp. In a press conference after the initial tests, Stapp attempted to explain his research in clinical terms. When a reporter asked, “How is it that no one has been severely injured, or worse?” Stapp, replied nonchalantly, “We do all of our work in consideration of Murphy’s Law.” When asked for clarification, Stapp explained that you had to think through all possibilities before doing a test, in order to avoid disaster.

Last week I said that Murphy was an optimist. He wasn’t. Murphy looked at the glass as always half empty. Actually, Dr. John Paul Stapp was the optimist. He was also the fastest man on earth for a while, and a test dummy. In order to be willing to sit in the seat of the rocket sled and put his body through the incredible forces of sudden acceleration and deceleration, Stapp had to be an optimist. He was not a blind optimist, however; he and his team worked to ensure that they kept fatal failure a remote possibility.

Sooner or later, the worst possible set of circumstances is bound to occur

Years ago, when the data did not provide the answers that an executive of the company wanted to see, he told us to collect more data, and to keep collecting data until we found proof that he could use. Thankfully, my boss intervened, using the Law of Truly Large Numbers to highlight that while it was statistically possible for us to find a shred of evidence that supported the executive’s idea, that we would find thousands of examples that proved the idea was wrong.

I like to call it the Blind Squirrel Rule: Eventually, the blind squirrel does find the nut.

Finding the nut is a positive thing, if you are the blind squirrel. However, in project management, you don’t want the squirrel to find the nut. Hell, you don’t want the squirrel to even have the most remote opportunity to finding anything.

Diligent project managers, create The Plan, define The Budget, and work to get the Right People on the project. Following that process, they engage the team to look for the failures—the probable, possible, and remote opportunities for failure to happen. Effective project managers are not afraid of failure; they work hard to control the impact failure has on the project.  


Even good people can be rendered ineffective. I have seen talented leaders lose control of a situation and fail. When the right combination of unplanned and unexpected circumstances comes together, even the best can get nailed. 

There is such a thing as innocent failure. But like the nut the blind squirrel finds, the innocent failure is a rare event.

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