I learned about Murphy’s Law in graduate school. It basically says that what can go wrong will go wrong. Although this tenet feels very pessimistic, there is value to it. It gives a framework for people to look for flaws in their thinking, which can make it easier to address potential issues before they arise. This leads me to Misner’s Corollary to Murphy’s Law: Sometimes, what can’t go wrong will go wrong. I know this sounds crazy and even more pessimistic, but if you go about it in a thought-provoking manner, you can truly think through potential challenges before you proceed. In particular, you want to consider what I call the “unintended consequences of a seemingly good idea.” This tends to happen when you roll out what everyone agrees is a good solution while avoiding what could go wrong with its rollout and implementation. You then roll out the idea, and all goes well. But we tend to overlook the unintended consequences of that new idea.
Misner’s Corollary Examples
This has happened several times in my career, such as when my company, BNI, implemented a “substitute program” relating to attendance. The idea was that the substitute would represent the member (employees and customers were the prime substitute candidates), and then the member wouldn’t be considered absent. It sounded and looked good on paper, but there was a long-term unintended consequence: Some members would look for virtually anyone to be a sub. This created a less than satisfactory situation for the group, especially when that sub basically just pitched their own business instead of representing the person they were supposed to be there for. It has taken us years to address this issue, and it’s still not perfected.
Another example of the impact of unintended consequences was BNI’s transition from paper copies of referral slips over to digital referrals. Despite the massively improved process of passing and tabulating the information, there was a sense of loss by many members in the physical passing of a referral to another member. This turned out to be moot once the pandemic arrived and all our groups transitioned to meeting online, but it does underscore one of the problems with Murphy’s Law and Misner’s Corollary — you never know for sure if something would have been an issue when the problem never really had a chance to surface (which is probably a good thing).
There have been some occasions where I’ve witnessed these strategies produce clear-cut results. Last January, our CEO, Graham Weihmiller, began to transition 10,000 weekly, in-person networking meetings online. He expected pushback early on, and therefore started the transition where it was first necessary (Asia) and experimented in areas where it was not yet necessary. By moving forward and testing the waters, the organization was well prepared for unintended consequences, resulting in an incredible global pivot over a matter of weeks.
The prevailing lesson here is that when you have a good idea, think about what can go wrong with that idea. Then, spend time thinking outside the box about what can’t go wrong by considering potential unintended consequences. Maybe then you’ll avoid encountering Misner’s Corollary for yourself.