My Friend Murphy

Freeman Marvin, Vice President

I must tell you up front that I’m not known around my house as being particularly handy in the yard.  My wife and daughters will tell you how I destroyed our lawn mower by running over a ground rod and how I severed the cable from our TV satellite dish while planting a shrub.  Murphy’s Law seems written just for me: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong."

So I am a little cautious when taking on yard chores.  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” I have started to say.  But one weekday recently I was home early, so I decided to take my chainsaw to a rather tall tree that had been leaning precariously towards our front porch for several months.  It seemed like a good opportunity.

As decision and risk analysts, we are always looking for decision opportunities for our clients.  After all, Ralph Keeney tells us that the best decision situations are ones that are not forced on us by outside forces, but ones that we create for ourselves with our creative genius to better achieve our objectives.  But why try to fix something that isn’t broken?  Don’t we risk messing things up just as easily as we could improve them?

The truth is, Murphy is an equal opportunity employer.  Decision situations created by the normal course of events and actions of others clearly have risk to us – we expect some things to go wrong.  However, decision opportunities that we create for ourselves carry an illusion of control.  In fact, these opportunities may have as much or more risk than a well-defined decision problem.

Finding the appropriate balance between the risks found in reactive and proactive decision situations – between decision problems and decision opportunities - is part of the art of decision analysis.  I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are three principles that can reduce your risk of reactive problem solving:

  1. Design systems as simple as you possibly can in order to reduce the chances of unanticipated problems – remember Occam’s Razor;
  2. Watch for leading indicators of potential problems to provide early warning  - giving you more time to react;
  3. Build in graceful degradation so that if a problem does occur, the consequences may be mitigated.

For all you trivia buffs, Murphy’s Law was named after 1940 West Point graduate Edward Murphy.  He was known as a brilliant, "but obstinate officer, full of spit and polish.”  In 1949, Captain Murphy was an engineer at the Wright Field Aircraft Laboratory (now part of Wright-Patterson AFB) in Dayton, Ohio.  Murphy had traveled with his team to Edwards AFB in California for a day and a half of rocket-sled tests.  He had designed some G-force sensors to detect how much acceleration the human body could withstand.  Long story short, the sensors were installed incorrectly by a technician.

When the problem was discovered after much wasted time, his team watched as Murphy chewed out the technician, exclaiming, "If there’s a way to do it wrong, he will!"  The new "rule," dubbed "Murphy's Law" by fellow engineer George Nichols, spread quickly through the aerospace world.

Back to my tree story.  My big, orange Husqvarna roared like a Harley when I fired it up.  I cut a perfect V-shaped notch about a foot off the ground on the side of the tree toward the woods and stood back to watch the show.  In an instant, I realized the flaw in my plan.  The tree, already inclined toward the house, slowly dropped onto the porch, knocking the gutter off with a clang and sending asphalt shingles pirouetting to the ground.  Naturally, this surprised me. 

Just as I was planning my next decision opportunity, my wife and daughters turned into our driveway.  Which reminds me of Finagle's corollary to Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment.