When Murphy Strikes

by Krishna on July 25, 2007

Management is tough. It takes years of experience and learning to understanding how to manage people and resources well. While some managers get lucky and have an easy time, most managers find the going tough. Management is fundamentally a balancing act between several conflicting priorities and an assumption of risks and responsibilities over which one has limited control.

The most difficult thing that managers, particularly less experienced ones, find it difficult to digest is the phenomenon of bad things that happen despite their best efforts — bad things that they could have done nothing to prevent. When someone lands in trouble because they have been slacking off or neglecting something, they reconcile themselves to the fact because they understand that they are directly responsible for the failure.

That is not the case with incidents of pure bad luck. Sometimes, superstitious managers feel that there is some curse on them when that happens and they get terribly depressed and helpless. Here are a few incidents of Murphy's Law in action:

  1. Losing an important team member at a critical juncture: The person falls ill with some disease or meets with a road accident at the time that you least expect it to happen. One day, he or she is helping you day-dream about great possibilities and the next day, they are calling you from a hospital bed. Suddenly all your plans are not worth the paper they are printed on.
  2. Getting hit by some unexpected technical glitch: You suddenly help Microsoft or Oracle discover that obscure bug in their system software in that important functionality that must work for your application to be useful. What is worse is that you think it is your fault and then spend hours chasing that non-existent programming error.
  3. Being strung along by the ups and downs of business cycles: You suddenly get several customers in a week and cannot possibly get enough staff quickly enough. Or a large customer lands into a business crisis of their own and has to downsize. There is never a perfect staffing situation, even if you are the best resource allocation expert on the planet.

How does one cope with such situations? By definition, I am talking about unexpected situations, for which you didn’t plan. For example, if you did take into account the loss of every team member, then that particular situation does not apply. But even with your best risk management, there will be other cases that you did not consider and then found yourself totally dumbfounded when it happened.

The first thing as a manager is to remember that “stuff” happens. This has the unfortunate side effect of becoming a person who is not overly enthusiastic about anything good happening, because you are just waiting for the inevitable downside. The good thing about this pessimistic outlook is that you are not totally surprised by bad things happening. The older you get, the more likely you are to have this attitude towards life.

I think the people that really get hurt when bad stuff happens are the innocent and the idealist types. They naively believe that if they do the right thing, everything else will automatically fall into place and fit into their well-laid plans. When they get a dose of reality, it does not meet their perception of fairness and they just cannot accept it. Unfortunately for them, life is never fair.

The second step is to not panic. In many bad situations, there are always other options. Although those options are not necessarily perfect, they are usually much better than the worst case scenarios that you start building up in your brain during a crisis. What I have seen is that in many tough situations, being honest and transparent with the stakeholders gains you support and allows you to manage the situation with less stress.

Sharing your problems with people who can help is very important. A very counter-productive step at this juncture is to gripe about your problems to someone who cannot or will not help you. It only increases your frustration and feeling of helplessness. If no one can help you, talk to someone who can comfort you, like your spouse or best friend.

Finally, gain a sense of priorities. Most bad things in the business world are really nothing compared to the troubles faced by people in under-developed and developing countries. You are not starving or having to worry about being maimed, killed or imprisoned. Apart from the crisis, most of the things in the rest of your life are just fine. The few irritants today will disappear at some point in the future. Don’t get too stressed out!


Nanct July 26, 2007 at 10:22 pm

True. Unexpected things happen and we need to be aware of it. Since we know that there is a chance that it will happen, ignoring it is not an excuse. It's only a sign of poor management.

Marie July 27, 2007 at 7:05 pm

You make a good point with those situations. Awareness is our only answer to this. We just need to learn to consider them in the things we do.

Krishna July 28, 2007 at 9:50 pm


We cannot consider every single possibility. Also something that we may have dismissed may also happen. It is really impossible to predict the future. I suppose with better management, we can get a handle on most risks, but still bad things may happen.


I agree. Being aware that something wrong could happen helps us be better prepared.

John July 29, 2007 at 8:35 pm

It's true that we can't avoid certain situations. It's best that we learn from those experiences and prepare ourselves for the future in case it happens again.

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