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Learning from the “laws”:
Murphy, Parkinson,
Peter and Cipolla

October 2001

disponibile anche in italiano

  Giancarlo Livraghi
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Let’s forget the “bubble”, for a while. As well as the noisy flutters of the stock markets, the inflating and deflating ventures of the dot coms, the woes of the telecoms, the bewildering bewilderment of analysts and economists who failed to see the obvious two or three years ago. Let’s go a bit farther back in time – and take another look at some famous “laws” that can be of great practical value now and in the future if we spend a little time understanding their meaning.

Before we look at the relevant laws, I think it’s important to get rid of one that never existed and has been widely misinterpreted – causing considerable damage. “Moore’s law” (1964) is fiction. Gordon Moore did not say that “computing power” (whatever that is supposed to mean) would double every 18 months. And whatever happens to computer technology does not mean that the whole world of society, economy and human behavior is revolutionized every year or so. That false perception has been used for 37 years to sell hardware and software “updates” that nobody needs. Even worse, it has caused a widespread perception of “haste” that has scared many people into hurried and poorly planned moves and generated an unbelievable number of “business plans” setting impossible short-term targets. There is a simple thing that we can do with this myth. Forget it – and concentrate on the realities of life and business. Where things are changing, but in another way and with a different pace – that can be slower, or faster, depending on the specific nature of what we are doing or planning.

Gordon Moore found that in 1962-64 «the number of transistors per integrated circuit was doubling every 12 months.»   The trend was not confirmed in following years. Over time, “manipulated folkore” arbitrarily defined the “doubling” period as 18 months and extended the notion to a vague concept of “performance” or “speed.”   That false “law” was used to sustain for 37 years a confusing perception that hardware and software needed to be changed very often and that everything relating to information technology (as well as communication) had to be managed with frantic haste.

There are four “laws” that, I think, we should re-consider. Four different ways of answering the same question: «why to things go wrong?». They are not new, but they can teach us a lot about what’s happening, help us to understand what’s going to happen – and what we can do to make things work a bit better.

Murphy’s Law

This problem, of course, has been proven by facts since the dawn of history. It’s been known as “Murphy’s Law” since 1949. Apparently it was never defined as a “scientific law”. It started as a comment by Edward Murphy, an aeronautics engineer, complaining about things going wrong. As we all know, it became established as the simple notion that «if something can go wrong it will, at the worst possible time.» It seems to happen more often with computers than with any other type of equipment – but that’s another story. Over the years it has generated hundreds of variations and corollaries. Some are just jokes, many are sadly true. With hasty management and clumsy technologies the effects multiply. But Murphy’s Law can be put to good practical use. If we understand that errors are unavoidable and unpredictable, and will happen in unexpected ways, we can set our plans with a healthy dose of flexibility – and avoid the flutter and confusion that make things worse when something goes wrong. The internet, with its effectiveness in testing every step, can be a particularly useful tool for this purpose.

Murphy’s Law is also known as “Finagle’s Law of Dynamic Negatives.” Several collections of its variations are available online, such as Murphy’s Laws and Murphy’s Laws and Corollaries.

Parkinson’s Law

The most common definition of Parkinson’s Law is that «work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.»   That is often true – but the remarkable book written by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1958 was about something else. It explained why organizations grow regardless of an increasing or decreasing amount of work to be done. In today’s environment, dominated by short-term maneuvering, stock exchange manipulations, mergers and acquisitions, the reverse is often true. In many cases the size of organizations is suddenly reduced for reasons that have nothing to do with the size of the tasks to be performed. And that is done so hastily that the inefficiencies of overstaffed or unnecessary departments aren’t eliminated. The resulting mess is a structure that is understaffed where it should have more resources, overweight where it needed some pruning – as well as scared and confused everywhere.

Some of the problems have been getting worse in recent years. But Parkinson’s book discusses many other organization diseases in addition to the “law”. It’s even more useful today as it was forty years ago.

Peter’s Principle

According to Peter’s Principle (1969) «people are promoted to the level of their incompetence.»   The idea of “meritocracy” is that people doing a good job are promoted. If they perform well in their new role, they are prompted again. This goes on until they are assigned a task for which they are incompetent – and there they stay.

Also in this case things are worse today than they were when Laurence Peter wrote his book – because the notion of “merit” is confused. People are often chosen or promoted (or re-assigned, or fired, or scared) for reasons that have nothing to do with competence or efficiency.

And... it’s blatantly confirmed by facts that many companies have handled “new” business areas vaguely and superficially – in the silly assumption that “growth would fix everything”. And assigned to those tasks people who were not competent to handle them. The results are sadly visible.

      Other articles on related subjects
      Dancing bulls and fat cows   (December 1999)
      Is hasty really fast?   (January 2000)
      Do androids dream of electric money?   (February 2000)
      Dot com tantrums   (May 2000)
      The millennium and the bubble   (January 2001)

Cipolla’s Laws

Above all, of course, there are the “fundamental laws of human stupidity” so brilliantly defined by Carlo Cipolla in 1988. It has always been obvious that stupidity is the biggest destructive force in the history of humanity. And another “law” is appropriate in this context, known as Hanlon’s Razor: «never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.»

What’s making it worse today is the “homogenized” worldwide media systems. The silliest statement or the least reliable “news” can be perceived as “true” simply because they are repeated by so many apparently independent sources. Hanlon’s Razor applies here as well: false or inaccurate information can be spread deliberately or simply multiplied by stupidity.

It’s a crucial task for each one of us to be constantly on guard against the dangers of stupidity. Non only what other stupid people can do, but also what we can make happen because of those elements of stupidity that exist in every human being. The worst fools are those who don’t realize how foolish they are. And when human stupidity is multiplied blindly by technology...

But we can make an intelligent use of technology. If we use the internet (as well as, and in combination with, other sources of information) to check the reliability of what we are told – and to understand if our opinions and perceptions are reasonably accurate or need to be corrected.


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