Baden Powell once said that: “a Scout is never taken by surprise; he knows exactly what to do when anything unexpected happens” – a phrase that has drifted in from a less complicated era when life didn’t feel as threatening. It sounds idyllic but isn’t it also a rather deadening aspiration? To not be capable of being surprised? It seems to have drawn an assumption that surprises are always a bad thing.
There’s a school of film-making thought that argues that suspense beats surprise every time. One of the best known explanations came from Alfred Hitchcock talking about a hypothetical bomb under a table. (You can read the whole thing here.) Essentially, an audience gets suspense when they see the bag get left under the table, see the clock on the wall and then see the couple sit at the table and talk. If they don’t see the bomb get planted, they – and the couple – get a surprise. Apologies if explaining the simple mechanics of suspense has spoiled a number of films.
Life does not, however, take place at the movies. If working life does indeed have people called ‘Directors’, they don’t sit in chairs with megaphones shouting ‘Action’ or ‘Cut’. When did you last get offered a second take? Or get told that something can always be sorted out in the edit?
Real life does contain surprises. And a handy slogan like “Be prepared” can only fully protect us from the previously imaginable. Which is perhaps one reason to ask ourselves “What If?” on a regular basis. But shouldn’t we be asking ourselves exactly what we have against surprises? As long ago as 1859 in her Notes on Nursing (still in print today), Florence Nightingale advised us that:
Apprehension, uncertainty, waiting, expectation, fear of strong>surprise, do a patient more harm than any exertion”
Surprises certainly sound like something that Jane Austen, or her Emma character Mr Knightley, could have tried being less dismissive of forty-four years earlier:
Surprises are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced and the inconvenience is often considerable.”
But life is not a nineteenth century comedy of social manners any more than it’s a movie. Surprises happen. So why the urge to impose normality when a surprise disrupts it? It’s a question that Soren Kaplan poses in his blog posting, 4 Breakthrough Leadership Strategies for 2013:
Strategy #4: Savor Surprise – The unexpected is a natural part of innovation. And in today’s 2013 environment, uncertainty has never been greater. When unanticipated things occur, rather than fight them, see what they’re saying. The stronger our reaction – either positive or negative – the stronger our assumptions are likely being challenged or reinforced. Scott Cook, Founder of Intuit, credits this unusual mantra as one of the pillars of his company’s long-term success. Ask yourself: What surprises have we experienced that influenced where we are today? What can we do to remain open to the power of surprise when it occurs rather than resist it?”
There are other questions we might ask ourselves. Are we resisting the impact of surprises because they loosen our sense of control? What is our resistance achieving? That the ideas they suggest are not ours, even if they are worth paying attention to? Because we feel foolish at not forseeing them? (You might remember HM The Queen’s question to LSE Professors about the financial crisis.)
What are we doing about accepting that we live and work in more uncertain and volatile times? Which assumptions are we holding to when they might be past their sell-by-dates? Are we unlocking our potential to innovate by adapting to tomorrow, or trying to sustain today?
Are we directing organisations, or the idealised movie versions that we’d like to see? Are we listening to Scott Cook and Florence Nightingale or to Jane Austen?