If there’s one thing we all learn in business, it’s to avoid surprises at all costs. But what if that mindset is preventing us from breaking through all the noise, and standing out from the crowd?
Soren Kaplan makes that very case in his new book Leapfrogging: Harness the Power of Surprise for Business Breakthroughs arguing that both positive and negative surprises have the power to change the game—if we open ourselves to them and learn the right way to harness unexpected experiences and events.
Kaplan and his firm, InnovationPoint, conducted research that reveals surprise is not just something that differentiates breakthrough products, services, and messaging—it is also a key ingredient in creating those delightfully surprising breakthroughs. In other words, the way we handle the discomfort, disorientation, and thrill (and pain) of living with uncertainty, can enable us to find clarity from ambiguity. Being surprised has everything to do with our ability to change our respective games.
Here he answers a few questions for OPEN Forum on the power of surprise:
OPEN Forum: How has your experience and background developed your expertise in the connection between surprise and breakthroughs?
Soren Kaplan: I used to lead the strategy group at HP in the late 1990’s. I’ve worked with companies like 3M, Disney, Colgate, Medtronic, Cisco, and Visa and now teach innovation at the university level. My entire focus revolves around finding the conditions and creating the environment where surprises can be found and breakthroughs created.
OF: Why is surprise one of the most essential tools for innovation?
SK: First, surprises are an inevitable part of life, and therefore business. Most companies don’t realize that surprises actually contain useful information if we take the time to interpret them. In the late 1990’s, for example, Four Seasons Hotels primarily served business travelers in the North American market. When the first-ever Wall Street analyst report comparing hotel Websites was issued, Four Seasons ranked #1. The reason why? “Spending time on the Four Seasons Website makes us feel like we are already on vacation,” said the report. The fact that the report lauded the hotel for its vacation focus, created a big disconnect for Four Seasons’ executives since they were targeting the business traveler. This surprising misperception was a key factor that prompted senior leaders to reposition the company to Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and expand globally into vacation destinations.
OF: How can surprise be useful to managers to create breakthroughs in everyday challenges they face at work or in their department?
SK: When we’re surprised by something, it can be because our assumptions are challenged. And when our assumptions are challenged we are given the opportunity to revisit what we are doing and why.