How do you keep your outcomes free of nasty surprises? And how well can you plan a surprise to really drive an uncommon outcome?
A Great Surprise
I was recently invited to a surprise 50th birthday party of a friend held in a barn on a magnificent flower farm in the hills outside Melbourne. Over 60 people were “hidden” in the barn charged and waiting for his planned late arrival. When he ducked his head under the barn’s half closed roller door to escape the driving rain, expecting to join a barn warming party, you can imagine the bewildered but delighted look on his face when in unison this large group all yelled out with volition: “Surprise! Happy Birthday!”
Surprise. To encounter something unexpected or to be caught unawares.
When last have you surprised someone close to you? For example with flowers for a loved one? Or a surprise gift, just “out of the blue”? When last has someone done that for you? Isn’t it a wonderful feeling of recognition, particularly because it wasn’t expected? How good is the surprise turn of events in a movie or in the theater? Isn’t the surprise of the punchline that makes a good joke such a good joke?
The Nasty Surprise
However, we can also experience surprise at the other end of the spectrum, when things can go awry and we are negatively surprised, right? Like that car than ran a red light and nearly “took us out? Or when someone behaves surprisingly out of character. Or can you remember as kids how we found or engineered ways to give each other the “most delicious of frights”?
Surprise takes on many different guises in our relationships and in business. In today’s stock market analyst driven quarterly business results focus, the absolute key is to avoid surprises. Everything has to keep growing and at predictable rates. No surprises please. I also learned as an executive responsible for some of those outcomes how large a part the avoidance of any surprises played in one’s credibility. Executives and boards hate surprises, and “good management” includes keeping everything “in line with budget expectations”. And we are taught to recognize early warning signs so as to mitigate any risks that can cause “surprising outcomes”.
Project Management to Mitigate the Surprise
I work with scenario planning with my clients, where we look at the “worst case outcome” on the one hand and the “best case outcome” on the other and explore as many scenarios between those two points so we can determine their likelihood, their impact and how to mitigate them. You can read more about this in Planning In Scenarios. This is “project management 101” too, isn’t it? We have developed foolproof “sciences” to avoid surprises.
Unfortunately all this mitigation to avoid surprises in business can stifle a lot of creativity – even innovation. This can result in a raft of managers that are extremely cautious, risk averse and unwilling to make decisions, or take entrepreneurial risks.
Surprise as a Tactic
However, if we take a negotiation as an example, how powerful a tactic can a surprise be? We even plan for the timing where it will have most impact. It can completely turn the power around, can’t it? This is why it is used so effectively in the military context. How often have we read of a small band of operatives overcoming a significantly larger force against all odds by employing surprise as a tactic?
Whilst the above examples make for “good reliable management” we can employ surprise as a very versatile tool to assist us achieve many different outcomes. Ironically, it is the pro-active planning of when and how to introduce a surprise that can make it so effective.
I would urge you to seek ways in which you can do just that. “Variety is the spice of life”. Why not think of some ways of introducing surprise in your work or your life this week? Introduce some stimulation. Use some creativity or innovation. Think outside your normal scope and see where this might engender some additional laughter or energy or inspiration. Also at home. I am sure you will find it not only injects some fun, but also some new thinking and some new outcomes.
Go on, surprise yourself.