finagle’s law of dynamic negatives


Sometimes systems that should not work, work nevertheless.“

Richard Zeckhauser <Harvard>


“Things that do go wrong tend to go wrong in the worst possible way.”

Finagle’s Going Horribly Right


Finagle’s Law is a derivative of Murphy’s Law.

The generalized or `folk’ version of Murphy’s Law, fully named “Finagle’s Law of Dynamic Negatives” and usually rendered “Anything that can go wrong, will”

(source: Urban Dictionary)

Finagle’s Law was popularized by science fiction author Larry Niven who, in several stories, depicted a frontier culture which celebrated a religion which involved the worship of the god Finagle and his mad prophet Murphy <often thought the source of ‘murphy’s law’>.

Finagle’s Law, or Logic, is an extraordinary mixture of cruel logic:

–          What we have is not what we need.

–          What we want is not what we need.

–          What we need is impossible to get.

–          You can get hold of this information for a much higher price then you are prepared to pay.

Note: One of my favorite blogs, 50topmodels, actually wondered if Finagle´s Law got it all wrong and reexamined it as … Yhprum´s Law (Yhprum is Murphy backwards)   or ‘everything that can work, will work.’ This is a derivative of Richard Zeckhauser <Harvard> thought “sometimes systems that should not work, work nevertheless.”

Ok. Let’s get to this: “sometimes systems that should not work, work nevertheless.”

How often do people design perfect systems in the workplace, under the guise of ‘this is the way its done’ and, ultimately, it is just another inefficient process & system? Or maybe it is easy to do so everyone just does things going through the motions? Or the perfect system is <gasp> measured on its efficiency and therefore everyone simply tries to ‘hit the measurement numbers”?


And I would also note that these are often called ‘best practices’, yet, conversely they appear to produce something less than the best.

And then there are situations where someone builds a system and has everyone working within this system, yet, the ‘people who designed perfect systems’ are scratching their heads and saying that will never work because its ‘not a best practice’. And, well, it does work.

That’s Yhprum´s Law. Everything that can work, will work. In other words, anything built, even if built horribly, can work.

System design is not formulaic. Its not because whether things work or not is often up to the people – imperfect people consistently being imperfect all acting toward what is often an imperfect objective. What that means is people are inconsistent in that they consistently do unexpectedly great things. In addition, sometimes mistakes become stepping stones to blinding success. Oh. And the systems that shouldn’t work gain significant improvements thru some trial & error while the perfect systems remain … well … stagnant – never improving. This thought is actually a derivative of an Ackoff thought:

The righter we do a wrong thing the worse it gets, yet, because we are doing things “right” most people will just try working harder at doing the right things <which only makes it worse>.

The main thought:

Flaws demand imagination.

‘Perfect systems’ demand obedience.

Business, in general, like life, is messy. Sure. We seek perfection. It is kind of like the holy grail of ‘job well done’ and, yet, here is the challenge with attaining perfection.

Realistically we should be seeking to immediately change <ongoing improvement>, rather than replicate, in business. This means ‘doing it right’ is simply a level on a progressive scale. This means a  level of ‘perfection’ is always measurable only upon what existed in the past, not the present. Process, systems as it were, are just a means to an end and not an end in and of itself.

Which leads me to “not quite the right thing.” It seems to me that systems & process reside most often closest to that phrase. Why do I say that? Realistically the ‘right thing’, even a system, is right contextually.

Ok. As for systems that shouldn’t work? The imperfect systems? Well. Maybe they are simply built for the future. Built on some probability the future context will exist which will make it ‘right.’ I say that because business, in particular. Is slavish to past success therefore all systems they develop are not based on future but rather past effectiveness (or efficiency. Let me say this. A system bult for the future may, or may not, work ‘right’ in the present. It is built on the probability of some future.

Ponder that.

I would suggest if you have that attitude you will stop seeking flaws in the system or why it will not work but rather start seeking opportunities to make it work. in my mind this means you end up seeking to better the system.

Ok. Moving on.

There is another aspect to Murphy’s Law that is applicable here: “If there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those ways can result in a catastrophe, then someone will do it.”

Now. If you think about that from a logic perspective, this suggests <for example> that if someone plugs in a toaster backwards and it fries itself, the problem isn’t just that some idiot plugged it in backward, but that it was able to be plugged in backwards in the first place.

In other words, the flaw isn’t in the person, but rather the design (people just make mistakes and are not flawed).

If you believe that, maybe when mistakes are made, we shouldn’t be blaming people but rather seeking to design a better system. Not ‘perfect’ systems, but systems with the minimum opportunity for flaws.

Note: I would suggest this is a warped version of antifragile.

This would demand constant improvement. As I stated earlier, systems are a means to an end therefore using Finagle’s Law as a guide everyone should be focusing more on the people aspect. And not in a “you suck” perspective, but rather a deeper understanding for why and how mistakes are made.

Mistakes not out of ignorance, but rather mistakes made simply by pursuing what one believes is the right thing to do and the right way to use a system.


The true Finagle’s Law is much more twisted than “anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” The Law also allows for things going well. It’s like as if the universe is merely lulling you into a false sense of security before proceeding to screw you. It also allows for things that can’t go wrong … going wrong <and within Finagle’s Law this counts as Gone Horribly Right>. Basically “gone horribly right” is people trying to do the right thing all the time – even if a system is not supposed to work or if it isn’t actually the right system at all.

Regardless. To end this, I wanted to share some last thoughts on Finagle’s Law. The law owes its existence more or less entirely to the Rule of Drama where things that do go wrong tend to go wrong in the worst possible way.

Finagle’s Law also suggests that Life has a pretty warped sense of humor in that it is obsessed with making your life as difficult and humiliating as possible.

Note: Beware. I imagine the potentially dangerous belief within Finagle’s Law is one of two things:

        • make you scared to do anything
        • make you assume that you cannot ever do anything right

Don’t. Just be aware finagle lurks around every corner.

Look. Successfully navigating Life takes some flexibility. If perfection is your thing … well … Finagle will be your constant companion and friend.

Take Life with a grain of salt.

Things go wrong. Even when they aren’t supposed to.

Things go right. Even when they aren’t supposed to.

Anyway. Let me end by going back to Finagles Law. Even the most logical thinker will occasionally take a trip to the subconscious brain where some undefinable irrational <slightly illogical> emotion starts screaming at the top of its lungs to create a debilitating distracting behavior.

It is illogical behavior for a logical person.

The irrational is driven by some unerring doubt in what they may believe is truth – doubt and truth intersect.

I will point out that is what “what shouldn’t work ends up working” is. A crashing together of different people with different logical and illogical thoughts, a crashing together of belief in something and disbelief in something else and where truth among some meets unfailing doubt in others. It works despite the fact everyone says it will not work.

Maybe that’s my thought for the day.

Maybe Finagle’s Law is really simply illogical behavior cancelling out illogical thinking (or vice versa).


“Not quite the right thing.” Life is perfectly imperfect. Systems are perfectly imperfect. Business is perfectly imperfect. You can either accept it or end up in a loony bin some day.

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Written by Bruce