Our theme this week will be various laws, rules and principles that govern the practical world about us. But I’m not talking about anything so mundane as the Law of Gravity.
We’ll begin with a familiar one which, as two eminent physicists note in our quotes, may be the funndamental governing law of the Universe.
Murphy’s Law – if anything can go wrong, it will
[No one is sure who “Murphy” was.]
– Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
Even at the world's soon-to-be largest particle accelerator … scientists need to be mindful of one of the most fundamental laws in the universe: Murphy's Law. … a scant few months before the … collider … is slated to go online, a small but crucial part of the machine broke with a bang. "We were busy solving hard problems, and somehow an easy one slipped past us," said Jim Strait of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois.
– National Geographic, DC - Apr 13, 2007
Here's what I wrote about Murphy's Law in my management manual:
"Murphy did exist and his law is a real one, although many confuse it with the spurious and unrelated “Law of Inherent Cussedness”. The Law of Inherent Cussedness is that false supposition that most people hold, that things will automatically happen to create the maximum inconvenience. “Bread always falls butter side down” is just one example of this false law.
Murphy’s Law was first propounded by Captain Edward A Murphy Jr. in 1947, and he made his famous statement during the testing of a rocket-powered sledge that was being used to measure deceleration. Because the instruments used to measure the forces could be fitted in two different ways, the engineer responsible had actually done just that – and had fitted all sixteen gauges back to front! Although Murphy’s words were slightly different, the form the Law usually takes is “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong”.
Murphy did not say that anything will always go wrong, but that if it can, sooner or later it will. In engineering terms, Murphy said that anything capable of being fitted wrongly will, sooner or later, be fitted wrongly and it was Murphy’s Law in action that caused the crash of a Skymaster in the centre of Stockport many years ago. A fuel check valve was fitted back to front, causing the engines to be starved of fuel at a critical time. Even though the direction of flow was embossed on the valve, the threads were the same at each end and so back to front fitting was possible.
To avoid these sorts of problems, Murphy suggested that components should be designed in such as way that it is physically impossible for them to be fitted wrongly and that is the philosophy adopted by most modern designers.
In an office, systems and procedures should also be designed to be “fail-safe”. For example, copies of a multi-part document, no matter how well designed, will sooner or later be distributed wrongly, so make sure that your system is designed so that the error is quickly detected. A system that fails in such circumstances will be a victim of Murphy’s Law.
The best way of beating the Law is to keep looking forward so as to anticipate and pre-empt problems. Keep your systems simple and straightforward , since the greater the complexity the more there is to be done wrongly. Finally, when problems do occur, make sure your organisation’s climate is such that people will give you feedback in time to put things right."
I originally wrote this manual back in the last millennium and I can't now recall my source.
Or as Scotty put it in "The Search For Spock", "The more you complicate the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drains."
That's exactly why all those new-fangled things on cars can be a nightmare.
Morton’s Fork – the principle that "you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t"
Named for King Henry VII’s tax collector, John Morton (c.1420-1500), who took the position that 1) if you’re living in luxury you obviously have enough money to pay taxes, and 2) if you’re living frugally, you must be saving your money, and so can afford to pay taxes.
– The Telegraph, July 8, 2006
So Labour faces a Morton's Fork. It could obey the incoming hardline leaders of unions that are still its major financial supporters, in which case it will cease to be New Labour. Or it could brush off the new union bosses, lose their financial support and face conflict, including strikes.
– The Telegraph, Aug. 23, 2002
It should make things easier to fit if they'll only fit one way. But it's possible that your concern arises from the newness of the item, not from its complexity.
Parkinson's Law – the principle, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Coined by C. Northcote Parkinson (1909-93).
– New York Times, June 25, 1990
Gresham’s law – the tendency of inferior products or practices to drive out superior ones
Most dictionaries give only this economic meaning: the principle that in financial markets, "bad money drives out good". That is, if two currencies are in circulation, one of them being debased, then this debased "bad money" will soon be the only one left circulating (because people will hoard the superior currency when they receive it, thus removing it from circulation).
. . .Why is the principle given this name? When Queen Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558 her financial advisor, Sir Thomas Gresham, advised her of this principle, writing "that good and bad coin cannot circulate together". (Can anyone find the text of the letter?) Three centuries later British economist H. D. Macleod called it "Gresham’s Law", apparently in the mistaken belief that Gresham had been the first to recognize the law.
– Financial Times, Oct. 21, 2004
[Samuel] Johnson posits a kind of Gresham’s Law for literature, in which the bad and cheap writing of the marketplace drives the good out of existence.
– Robert D. Spector, Samuel Johnson and the Essay
This is a link to Google Book Search, page 313 (letter 182), which reproduces the letter from Gresham to the Queen:
Today's principle may give you a new way of looking at the world.
80/20 rule or Pareto Principle – often, 80% of the result comes from 20% of the work or other input
Wilfredo Pareto was an Italian economist and his principal is one that cannot be completely defeated.
If you undertake a Pareto analysis (and surprisingly few companies do - unless they have had my training [advert.]) then you will identify the 80% of less productive work and will do something about it.
However, once the 80% of less profitable work has been eliminated or converted into more profitable or otherwise effective activity, then what remains is itself subject to the 80/20 rule. So you could continue until you have only one activity which will account for 100% of your profit or utilisation - and then you are in danger of failure through overspecialisation!
Having said which, a Pareto analysis would be a useful activity for most organisations (or people, since the rule applies equally to individuals) since very few realise just how much effort is spent on activities and other things that are of little worth. To start with, try a Pareto analysis on your wardrobe (closet). Most people find that they wear 20% of their clothes 80% of the time and the remaining 80% are rarely touched. A Pareto analysis might save the cost of a new wardrobe!
I hope I'm not preempting a future post but this seems to relate to Sturgeon's Law.
(Indeed the article suggests that Sturgeon's Law is a specific example of the Pareto Principle.)
quote: I hope I'm not preempting a future post.
Not at all, and please, never hesitate for such a reason.
I'm not familiar with Sturgeon's Law. Any personal thoughts you can add to the link?
It's maybe a specific application but no more than that. Apart from anything else, Pareto formulated his observation in the early part of the 20th century, well before Sturgeon's remark.
In any case,, Pareto never said anything about the quality of the components of the 20/80 percentages and there is no reason to assume that, just because the 80% may be the less effective, that it is rubbish (or crud, as Sturgeon suggested). That a company dervues 80% of its profit from 20% of its customers does not mean that the 80% are rubbish; they may simple be the wrong customers for that company.
Of course, Surgeon may have been making his comment in respect of American beer...
I have encountered various statements of Sturgeon's Law. It's well known among science fiction fans. As the article said Sturgeon is reputed to have made the remark in response to literary critics who consider science fiction to be a low brow and debased form of literature with no merit.
The usual formulation that I know is
"90% of everything is crap." although I gather he said "crud".
His idea is that no matter what you are talking about there will be 10% of it that is really worthwhile and 90% that isn't. Very similar to Pareto really.
I tend to agree with him. 90% of the beer sold in the world is crap, 90% of the books written are crap, 90% of my posts are probably crap too. Judge for yourself which side of the 90/10 split this one falls.
Today's two terms, somewhat related in meaning, are each acronyms; that is, made from initials. Neither is particularly familiar, and each, when used, is usually accompanied by an explanation of what it means.
TANSTAAFL – the principle, "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch"
GIGO – the principle, "Garbage In, Garbage Out". In other words, if the inputs are nonsense, the results will be nonsense.
Insofar as I can tell TANSTAAFL, coined by Robert Heinlein, is not yet recognized by any general paper-and-cover dictionary. GIGO is recognized by OED.
– Motley Fool, March 9, 2006
When a computer is mistreated or given imperfect data, it suffers from GIGO as it can create garbage alone from garbage. The sense of GIGO extends beyond the computer when there are failures in human decision-making due to faulty, incomplete, or imprecise data
– The Tribune (India), July 6, 2002
Inspector Doherty shares with me," Delchamps said, "the philosophy that if you're going to use a computer, use the best one." "We are referring, Colonel, ... to the computers between our ears." ... "Computers, Colonel, are only as good as the data they contain," Doherty said. "You know what GIGO means?" Castillo nodded. "Garbage in, garbage out." "Right. So anything we put into our computers .. has to be a fact, not a supposition, not a possibility...."
– W.E.B. Griffin, The Hunters
Peter Principle – [coined by Laurence J. Peter] the principle that those in a hierarchy are promoted until they reach the level at which they are no longer competent (at which point promotion ceases). Thus each position is eventually filled by an incompetent.
– Time Magazine, July 26, 1982
Similar to TANSTAAFL is Larry Niven's tanj--a lament which means "there ain't no justice."
Cerebroplegia--the cure is within our grasp
Lawrence Peter was a university lecturer who, himself, refused promotion to an administrative level because he enjoyed class contact and didn't like pen-pushing and paper-shuffling.
However, although there is some truth in the Principle, it is too simplistic as it stands since its implication is that nobody, no matter what the situation, can be trained to competence. Everyone will eventually be faced with a task or role that he or she cannot cope with; most people eventually learn to deal with the situation. If Peter's Principle were accurate, then nobody would ever be able to deal with new tasks. And there would be no work for we trainers!
Of course, there is a kernel of truth in that people have natural preferences and aptitudes and, sometime in their lives, will be offered a promotion or other move that takes them into an area where they are not comfortable. The difficult job is to know whether the new area is one for which you are simply not suited (you are too short, too tall, not sufficiently intelligent, too intelligent or any other "unchangeable" factor) or whether it is simply a matter of upgrading your skills or knowledge to cope with the new role.
But the Principle is a good one for employers and employees alike to bear in mind when promotion is offered.
I'd say that that's a misreading of it.
I don't think it's suggesting that
Rather it's saying that there will for everybody be some situation for which they cannot be trained to competence. I for example couldn't be trained to competence as a manager. I'm just not organised enough. My brain doesn't work that way. Writing on a single piece of paper at an otherwise empty desk I can lose the paper and the pen and sometimes the desk. As a manager I'd lose vital papers, forget vital tasks and generally make a pig's ear of it. No amount of training will fix this. In the past fifty years I've probably wasted a solid five years searching for things that should never have been lost.
I have also turned down promotions that would give me a manegerial role because I know it would be a disaster. Back when I used to work for the police I jumped before I was pushed and left because it was made clear to me that I was expected to apply for promotions to posts that I didn't want and knew I wouldn't have been able to do.*
*Actually that was only one of many reasons, but it was an important one.
I agree with Bob on this. I know you are a trainer, Richard, so this probably goes against your grain, but I believe there are areas in everyone where no amount of training will develop competence. Bob is self perceptive, and because of that he most likely saved himself from some unhappy positions.
No. That's not what it says. It says that there are areas (as in Bob's case) which will never be our strengths. While there may be some improvement with these weaknesses after training, why focus your whole career on a relative weakness when you can excel with your strengths. I think that's what the Peter Principle is saying.
I'm a little hesitant to post this article because clearly it's a political position. But if we can ignore that part (please?), you can see where some great leaders have been promoted into positions where they've become less effective.This message has been edited. Last edited by: Kalleh,
I agree and never suggested otherwise. Check my last second and third paragraphs. Some people cannot be trained to competence in some areas simply because of their physical or mental limitations.
But see what Peter said, "...those in a hierarchy are promoted until they reach the level at which they are no longer competent (at which point promotion ceases). Thus each position is eventually filled by an incompetent....."
Peter admitted of no exceptions in his Principle - "EACH position is eventually filled by an incompenent" is what he wrote. Indeed, when I heard Peter give a panel discussion on the topic, the moderator asked, "...But surely people will eventually become familiar with the job...?" And Peter responded, "...No. In my experience, once people reach a level of incompetence they stay there, not coping with the job but not doing badly enough to get demoted..."
It's many years since I heard the discussion so my words might not be 100% accurate, but that was the gist.
The seductiveness of the Principle is great since we all of us will know or work for people who are incompetent. But we forget all those others who are competent, and in the right roles. We forget, too, that much of the incompetence we see is simply the result of failure to train or to accept training.
In my own field of public speaking training I strongly believe that the shocking presentations to which we have all been subjected are the result of untrained people being forced to speak without having been trained. The worst such are those who have spoken often enough to have lost their fear but who have not acquired the necessary skills. There are very few people who are physically or mentally incapable of speaking effectively in public, but a very large proportion of those that do are incompetent, simply because they have not been trained.
Peter's Principal is a seductive theory but one that can all too easily be used as an excuse to avoid providing or accepting training. "...He's no good as a manager, so we'll shuffle him sideways so he can't cause any damage. He's a classic example of the Peter Principle..."
A fine example of the Peter Principal at work.
And just how much training had Gonzales had for the job? Indeed, what training do any politicians have at politics? Answer - generally none at all. That is why most politicians are incompetent, their own natural talent being that for self-advancement. What qualifications and training do George Bush and Tony Blair have for running two of the world's most powerful counties? President Mugabe has, through his single-handed incompetence, reduced one of Africa's richest countries to a state of penury in less than a generation. What are his qualifications? I don't believe anyone should be allowed to take public office without having been properly trained, tested and qualified for the office - just as are professionals in all other spheres. Politicians are probably the only group who can exercise so much power, and earn so much money, without a single qualification to their name.
If Peter had said, "...In a hierarchy without proper training and development processes, employees will rise to their level of incompetence..." then I'd have agreed with him.
Your argument doesn't invalidate the generality of the principle. It just lengthens the process.
How do you like this?
In a heirarchy everyone will eventually rise to a post where, because of his inate skills, temperament and aptitude, he will be unable to be trained to an acceptable level of competence.
I don't agree with that, either. That would mean that nobody could ever reach a peak of achievement. Some people might not be able to do so but they are plenty who do (Maslow's self-actualisers")
I do teach the Peter Principle in my management training but with the caveat that it is seductively easy to accept but it is certainly not always true.
It absolutely does NOT mean that. It means that no one can stop when they reach their peak because they will be promoted again. They can reach their peak but can't stay there.
How do you promote a prime minister; or a CEO; or a Pope? Many people keep on rising higher until they reach to top of their profession or until they choose to go no further. They do not stop because they reach their level of incompetence
The Peter solution to THAT question is the "lateral arabesque." When one has risen to the ultimate height in one profession, the only way to become Peter-incompetent is to switch to another.
Stumbled across on the web:
Jeanne's Two Laws of Chocolate:
If there is no chocolate in the house, there is too little; some must be purchased. If there is chocolate in the house, there is too much; it must be consumed
Murphy's Law is a corollary of Finagle's Law of Dynamic Negatives, which Google