Many times in our career, business, or life we experience unexpected events or twists in the road that catch us off guard. A big client pulls their business at a critical time, we find ourselves displaced from our job due to restructuring or cost savings, or we have a personal event that shakes the foundation of our comfortable lives. Most of the time when these events happen we shake our heads and wonder at the incredible surprise and chalk it up to “one of those things you just can’t predict”.
The reality though is though that in many of those cases the road signs have been there all along warning us of the coming event, but we’ve been ignoring them either hoping they would be wrong or believing through our confirmation bias that things were actually going to turn the corner and the inevitable wouldn’t happen.
If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience. -George Bernard Shaw
For most of us, once we put a plan in place for a business event or relationship, career objective or position, or our own personal life plan we do the things we believe will support that plan and then watch for the signs that we are succeeding. Confirmation bias is a tendency of people to favour information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses, and we all fall guilty of it particularly when we are working on a plan or initiative that is personal and important to us.
Even though there are signs that our major client is becoming less than satisfied with our service or outcomes we look for the signs that we are “turning the corner” and things are improving. Even though we see our organization reorganizing around us we look for the signs that our own job is safe because of our own view of our contributions and success. Even though some things in our life might be a bit bumpy right now we look for the signs that point to a happier future if we stay the course.
The problem with the confirmation bias is that we ignore the warning signs that don’t support our plan or our belief of the outcomes. Those warning signs can be giant neon flashing lights, but if it doesn’t support our hypothesis for how things will turn out we find ways to rationalize that the signs must be wrong. And then when the inevitable unexpected event happens, we’re shocked.
Business, career, and life are full of twists and turns and you will have to hit a curve ball or knuckle ball here and there to experience the success you are seeking. The trick is to be prepared for the curve ball so that it doesn’t catch you by surprise.
We need to constantly fight the confirmation bias and pay attention to the warning signs we see along our path. Those signs might be wrong, but we need to at least look at them and consider what they are telling us with an open mind to see how we might address the risks or potential impacts of them if they were to come true. We need to be willing to step outside of our comfortable plan and at least consider the possibility of disaster in an objective way if we are going to truly be successful in dealing with the “surprises” that life has to offer.
I’m not saying that all unexpected events are in fact predictable. There are things that we can’t see coming that will affect us personally and professionally but I believe that more often the events that we look back and classify as “unexpected” weren’t really unexpected at all, we just chose to ignore the warning signs along the way.
Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.