The Antidote To Murphy’s Law of Project Execution

The famous Murphy’s Law that “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” is inevitably met in every journey of project execution. But it’s the way you face it, that makes all of the difference.

Regardless of where you are in the hierarchy of your company, your industry, geography or initiative, if you’ve ever led all or part of a project, you’ve likely encountered “Mr. Murphy” on more than one occasion – and, like all of us, have suffered the consequences.

In our highly competitive universe, where there often is no time or money to support second chances, there is a way to mitigate or outright avoid these missteps, mishaps, and mistakes that often are costly outcomes of many wonderful initiatives.

The solution is one of the most overlooked components of successful project management which is the art and craft of risk management. As Gentry Lee, chief engineer for the Solar System Exploration Doctorate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA recently told our MBA UCLA business students during one of my courses at the Anderson School, most missions fail because risks are not properly calculated and/or managed.

This rocket scientist should know. His recent accomplishments include the successful and popular Curiosity rover mission to Mars and the GRAIL missions to the moon. With literally billions of dollars on the line, not to mention the threat of life or death consequences from a failed mission, risk management was not some optional extra for Lee, but an organizational and human imperative.

While the stakes of your “mission” may not mean reaching the stars, and even if your organization has an official “Murphy” manager, you must be active in your own rescue and be in that role, too. In a nutshell, your job as “Murphy” manager is to identify, analyze and manage the known and unknown factors that may arise during the course of a project. Unknown does not always mean bad, it also may mean unknown opportunities that could create value, propelling competitive advantage for you and your enterprise.

The antidote to a meeting with “Mr. Murphy” is to ensure what could go wrong in your future project, goes right. This includes:

  • Getting stakeholder buy-in

    – often a project’s success rides on getting your stakeholders’ intellectual, financial, experiential and most importantly, emotional support. The best way to accomplish this is to illustrate the benefits of your project in general, and what is in it for them in its successful completion.

  • Identify risks

    – don’t “hide the bacon.” Communication is critical and you must in the early stage, include everyone involved in the project to foresee what the “bad” things they believe might happen – including known and unknown – and assign ownership as to who is responsible for identifying, communicating to the team and designing mitigation against these risks. Remember to identify the opportunities as well as the threats that may arise and assign ownership of those, too.

  • Determine the probability of risks

    – assess and prioritize the likelihood of a threat being realized and its impact. What are the repercussions of a threat? Some risks will have higher impacts requiring greater resources, while others may be minimal. Remember, there’s no such thing as 100% success rate. Risks that are fatal, even though the probability is small, must be paid extreme attention.

  • Manage the risk

    – map out your active plan for execution and contingency plan for each risk including which to minimize (and how), which risks to transfer (identifying to whom) and which risks to accept (and maybe just pray).

  • Codify the plan

    – write it down so everyone is clear of the risks, rewards and responsibilities. Then manage against it.

One final nugget of advice – never, ever make assumptions – it’s the mother of all foul-ups!

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