In each joke, there is truth to it
Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it will.
Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
Peter Principle: In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. In time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties. Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.
The grain of truth in these jokes (or were they jokes at all?) was apparent and yet contradictory. These phrases tempted and challenged me for a long time.
If there is a lot of truth in them, then we do so many things wrong. If there is very little truth, why these jokes look and feel like profound wisdom?
Why do I want to remember and think more about them?
I am sure you can add to this list. Each of us has a few favorite sayings. If you send me yours, I will collect them on a new page “Grains of truth.”
Recently—at last!—I got answers to my questions about the truthfulness of those kinds of jokes. It turned out they are actually observable and reproducible facts.
To my utmost delight and intellectual and emotional relief, I found the whole book on the topic, written by John Gall — an American author and retired pediatrician: “The Systems Bible: The Beginner’s Guide to Systems Large and Small.” The best summary of it would be Gall’s Law:
A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.
Gall does not pretend he is providing scientific research, but he does an excellent job by collecting and explaining the observations each of us can relate to. He explains why those “humorous” statements are true and derives several basic principles that true for any complex system:
New Systems mean new problems.
Systems tend to expand to fill the known universe.
Complicated systems produce unexpected outcomes.
Systems tend to oppose their own proper function.
People in systems do not actually do what the system says they are doing.
Systems attract systems-people.
A complex system cannot be “made” to work. It either works or it doesn’t.
A simple system, designed from scratch, sometimes works.
Some complex systems actually work.
There are many more astute observations and valuable insights in the book, and I highly recommend everybody to read it. After my 40+ years of working with complex systems, I can wholeheartedly endorse each of these statements. The last four principles above are literal truths, so well proved that they became adopted by the modern software industry under the guise of an agile process and minimum viable product, each advocates an early release of a product and collecting the feedback from the real customers. They are also at the foundation of the seed accelerator, run by Y Combinator, “the world’s most powerful start-up incubator”.
This resolution brought me to revisiting many other “humorous” and not so humorous statements, made by different people many years ago, but which still hold true.
Omar Khayyam: Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.
Michel de Montaigne: I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself.
Francois de La Rochefoucauld: Passion makes idiots of the cleverest men, and makes the biggest idiots clever.
Anonymous: If I were smarter, I would not have so much experience.