Progress isn’t a one-way street - Michelle Gibbings

The word ‘progress’ commonly means to ‘move forward’ or ‘advance’. Its definition implies that progress is always a forward action.

But progress isn’t that simple. It comes in many shapes and sizes. And it’s certainly not a one-way street.

LightbulbsWhy? Because strangely enough when you feel like you are going backwards you may well be making progress. Enormous progress.

In fact, failure is progress. Just progress of a different kind.

Scientists know that for every test they carry out that proves a hypothesis is wrong they are a step closer to finding the answer.

The challenge is that as humans we are conditioned to find the one right answer. We search for what is right, not what is wrong. We often believe there is only one right way, and so we seek to find evidence to confirm that belief.

This is confirmation bias at play.

It’s a term that was created in the 1960s by Dr Peter Wason, a cognitive psychologist from London’s University College.

He conducted an experiment where participants were given a set of three number – ‘2,4, 8’.  He then asked them what they thought the rule was that the set of numbers followed.

To find the answer the participants could suggest a sequence of numbers and the researcher would tell them if the sequence was in the right order.

The participants suggested sequences such as ‘8, 10, 16’ and ’20, 22, 24’.  On each occasion, the researcher advised that the sequence of numbers was correct. Based on this, most of the participants concluded that the rule was that the numbers needed to ‘go up in even numbers’.

But that wasn’t the rule. The rule was just that the numbers had to ‘go up’.  So, the numbers could have been ‘1, 2, 3’ or ’10, 100, 250’.

What Wason discovered is that we like to be right and so we look for the right answer, not the wrong answer. In his experiment, the participants didn’t try to find sequences that could falsify what they thought the answer was.

This experiment, and others he carried out, showed that we are more likely to search for information that confirms our beliefs. Consequently, we ignore or dismiss evidence that contradicts our beliefs, assumptions, expectations and hypothesis.

Next time you find that something you have done hasn’t worked out, be curious as to why.  See what learnings you can extract from the experience. Look for the unknown answers and seek out what is different.  And most importantly, celebrate the fact that this discovery is getting you one step closer to where you want to get to.

Remember, change happens.  Make it work for you.


Michelle Gibbings is the author of Step Up: How to build your influence at work.  She is known for making the complex, simple.  She helps people to think more deliberately, act with greater purpose and accelerate progress by understanding the art and science of human behaviour.