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Murphy’s Law: Lonely Trees, Odd Socks and creating a winning team.

Lonely tree seeks attentive lover

The Tree of Ténéré had stood for 300 years in the Saharan desert. It was 250 miles away from the nearest tree and was known as the world’s remotest tree. It was hardly beautiful, but it was a testament to hardiness and resilience. It was a landmark and an icon. That was, until 1973 when a drunken truck driver plowed into it and destroyed a National treasure.

According to Murphy’s Law: If Something Can Go Wrong it Will. The Tree of Ténéré seems to offer some evidence for the law. Further supporting evidences include your stunning ability to choose to stand in the slowest queue in the supermarket. How when running late and you choose the single-track back road—as a shortcut; you then get stuck behind a convoy of 25 tractors on their way to the village tractor show. And it’s absolutely positively guaranteed when you are on your way to an important interview the trains will be cancelled, due to too many leaves on the track, global warming causing the tracks to buckle or Paul and Bill the clippies have had a heavy night and both phoned in sick. You get the picture: the world conspires against you in cruel and devious ways. In many ways The Tree of Ténéré had it good for 300 years, you on the other hand, have fate trying to cause your demise at least weekly. Is it too much to ask for one pair of good matching socks for today’s big meeting, is it, is it really?

"Just because you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean the universe isn’t out to get you"

But in reality assuming there are two lines at the supermarket checkout you can join, there really is an equal chance you will be in the quickest line. The reason we seem to think we end up in the slowest line more frequently is that, we take more notice of those times we end up in the slowest line, they become more firmly indented into our memories and are more available for us to remember, a form of a psychological quirk called the availability heuristic (a heuristic is a rule of thumb). It’s the same reason why all of a sudden after seeing pictures of spider bites in the news, after 40 years of not batting an eyelid when I saw a friendly arachnid in the corner of a room, I’m now reaching for a newspaper. To any of our American or Australian friends, in the UK we’ve generally managed to whittle out any dangerous creatures, it is a remarkably safe island with the exception of the terra bastardous, otherwise known as the Jack Russell Terrier.  

So events that are anxiety provoking, or plain just piss you off, create strong memories that can skew our thinking and make something seem more frequent or threatening than it is in reality.

Why Does the Toast always Land Upside Down?

Despite you being no less lucky than anyone else, you might be interested to know that when the toast falls off the table it is likely to land butter side down. Physicist Robert Matthews claims that when toast falls from an average sized table it will usually do a half turn, going from butter side up to butter side down on the floor, and to avert this disaster your table would need to be around 10 foot high.

What does this mean for performance? As ten foot tables would require ten foot high chairs which would be an added safety hazard, I think we should concentrate on other lessons from Murphy’s Law and a skewed version of probability and events. If we look at high performance teams in the world of sports, they feed off confidence, they play well, in part because they expect to play well. And you can see the opposite effect when a team starts to lose, it can have a crisis of confidence. Players become scared of making errors and they don’t want the ball. And when they are on the ball they act nervously and with indecision. The same nervousness and self doubt can plague work teams after one or two relatively high profile mishaps. One of the biggest things I try to do with work teams that have lost their edge, is help them restore their self-belief, to see themselves as capable, professional and winning. This is best done by leaders positively reinforcing small and big wins; as well as looking at mistakes as learning opportunities.

Who was Murphy Anyway?

The Murphy in question, a certain Captain Ed Murphy of the US Air Force was an aviation engineer, he had developed some sensors which were to be fitted to the harness of a cart that would hurtle a person at great speed in a straight line to test how many G’s of force a person could withstand. On the first trial with the new sensor fitted, a chimpanzee was securely fastened into the cart, and then was thrust forward at speed, all in the name of science. However, when he came to a stop, the new sensors recorded a G reading of exactly zero. A measurement that was wholly inaccurate. Upon finding out about the test failure, the fitment of the sensors was checked, it turned out that the 16 sensors had been fitted the wrong way around by an assistant. Depending on who you believe, Captian Murphy was a little cranky that day and went into full-on throw the junior team-mate under the bus mode. He supposedly said:

“If that guy has any way of making a mistake, he will".

The first lesson here, is unless you want to be remembered in history as the cranky guy who rolls over other people in the team, then it’s probably best to take a more even-handed approach when things don't go to plan.

A Positive Approach to Using Murphy’s Law

Colonel Stapp quickly adopted and adapted Murphy’s observation which he termed a law and it became the catchier 'if it can go wrong, it probably will.' The second lesson we can learn is much more positive. Stapp was asked at a press conference why no one had been severely injured during the cutting edge tests—they were traveling at G forces that up to then people had thought were not possible. Stapp said that they took Murphy’s law into consideration, they actively explored all opportunities for something to go wrong and took steps to counter them. Which is exactly what sound risk assessment is about.

We can find one final lesson around Murphy’s Law. Although many years before Captian Murphy was found to be berating his assistant, Alfred Holt said in 1877:

"It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later, so it is not to be wondered that owners prefer the safe to the scientific …. sufficient stress can hardly be laid on the advantages of simplicity. The human factor cannot be safely neglected in planning machinery. If attention is to be obtained, the engine must be such that the engineer will be disposed to attend to it."

So the final lesson is to ensure that the equipment people use is simple to operate, provides clear and engaging feedback to the operator and have an obvious means of reversing errors.

In conclusion:

Lesson one: When things do go wrong, express confidence in your team and be even handed when individuals slip up.

Lesson two: Explore all possibilities for process failure and mitigate using sound risk assessment

Lesson three: Make sure equipment is designed to engage the end user

Dr. Jared Dempsey is the Principal Psychologist at Kognivate.

This blog is for education purposes and may be freely shared with attribution.

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