Tools: Inverting Murphy’s Law

“It turns out that behind apparent order lies an eerie kind of chaos; yet behind that chaos lies an even eerier kind of order.”
[a reviewer of James Gleick’s book Chaos]

People may talk blithely about ‘the laws of science’, but to engineers, working in the real world, there’s only one real law:

“if something can go wrong, it probably will”

In practice, the myriad ‘laws of science’ are just guidelines, telling us how the world probably works. And yes, they’re often very good guidelines: but they’re still only guidelines. Whereas Murphy really is a law… the only law.

The word ‘probably’ is perhaps the most important one in the entire phrase – but strangely enough, it’s the one that’s most often left out. It’s what makes Murphy’s Law so unpredictable: without it – phrased as “if something can go wrong, it will” – Murphy’s Law is too predictable, too certain, to match what we actually experience of its weird workings.

And Murphy’s Law is weird… is wyrd… our most common proof that the wyrd – ‘the interweaving of everything, everywhere, everyone, everywhen’ – is all too real. We think we can make something idiot-proof, perhaps: but somehow, from somewhere out of the wyrd, along comes a better idiot… Engineering is full of laws and theories and hypotheses, but in practice none of them is ever more than a very good guideline: the law – the only real law – is Murphy’s.

What’s true in engineering is just as true in business. We might plan a product launch to the finest detail; we might select the most obvious and sensible of change-proposals; we might strive to control the market, to behave the way we want it to. But there’s always Murphy’s Law, waiting quietly in some unimaginable – or unimagined – corner, to show us once again that ‘control’ is just another urban myth!

Yet there’s a typically weird twist to this: if Murphy’s Law really is a law, then it has to apply to everything – including itself:

“if Murphy’s Law can go wrong, it probably will”

So if Murphy’s Law can go wrong, it too probably will: and since this happens most of the time, it’s what gives us the illusion that the other so-called ‘laws’ – laws of science, of engineering, of investment, of market-research, or whatever – describe the ways that things ‘really’ work. It can be a dangerous illusion… as many have found to their cost!

Most of the time, we want things to be certain: life’s much more comfortable that way. Unfortunately, Reality Department isn’t very certain: and after the euphoria of the Victorian era, when scientists were certain that they almost knew everything about everything, we’ve slowly had to settle for less, and less, and less… There’s now a strong tradition of uncertainty in science, beginning with Heisenberg’s much-quoted Uncertainty Principle: in trying to understand the behaviour of a single quantum of light-energy, we can either tell exactly where it’s going, but not where it is (as a wave); or be entirely certain about where it is, but have no idea where it’s going (as a particle). We cannot know both at the same time. A particle can be in two places at once, because it’s also a wave travelling between those two points; split the particle in half, destroy one of the sub-parts, and the other one will probably disappear too… weird…

Add in a few of the more recent theories and practical experiments, and life gets more than a bit weirder. Despite many people’s hopes, modern chaos mathematics does not make uncertainty predictable again: it just makes the degree of uncertainty more certain. The much-discussed ‘Butterfly Effect’ proves that the Victorian dream of ultimate control is an impossible myth. In true chaotic systems, there are often the semblances of certainty – the so-called ‘attractors’ within the pattern: but ultimately anything can change the entire of reality at any moment – as we discover to our cost, in business. That it generally doesn’t change is because Murphy’s Law applies mostly to itself. So it is true that, for most of Reality Department, for most of the time, most things do stay much as they are: we just need to remember that that might change at literally any moment… which could make things very uncomfortable indeed for almost any business!

So what, you might say: so what if the world is weird? Murphy’s Law probably is a real law – but so what? Ah, therein lies another weird twist…

We know that the world is weird – is probably weirder than we can ever know. So why not just let it be that way? Because if Murphy’s Law really is a law – and therefore applies to itself – we can turn that twisted Law back in on itself, like a Möbius loop, and change it from a problem to a new and powerful way to work with the world:

“things can go right if we let them – but if we only allow things to work in expected ways, we’re limiting our chances…”

That’s what we call ‘Inverse Murphy’ – and yes, it’s weird all right… It’s also wyrd – working with the wyrd as it is, rather than as we might expect it to be. Which is why it works… Look around at your own life: in what ways do you ‘limit your chances’, by trying to force things to work only in expected ways? As the old phrase goes, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got” – and then wonder why nothing’s changed…

So try inviting the wyrd twists of Inverse Murphy into your life for a while: he may be a bit of a strange character, with a rather upside-down view on life, but he can be a great deal of help at times…!

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