When I hear words
I have uttered to you and forgotten
They are like birds

Sally Ann Kinsolving, Surprise

We have learned a lot about surprises in the last twelve months. Whether it was the shock of a global pandemic disrupting our work and our lives, how much we can get done working from home, the power of freak weather, how far some people will stray from rationality in the name of ideology or who was up to the challenges of supporting us through the year (and who wasn’t). We also were surprised by who was ready for the transitions and who wasn’t able to adapt enough or at all. The surprises of the last year have the potential to teach us a lot.

Humans evolved around the African savannah where surprise is rarely a good thing. We long for the safe, comfortable, stable and predictable. Our brains even tend to default to a linear projection of activity forward in steady ways. This longing can be so strong that we are willing to ignore or suppress the reality of the shocks and surprises that impact us everyday. We do so particularly when those surprises are calling for us to change or make change.

A system of necessity much elaborated
becomes allowances very possibility

AA Ammons, The Surprise of an Ending

Most organisations spend far more time perfecting forecasts, approving business cases based on forecasts, managing performance to forecast and otherwise smoothing out the future than they do on the risk management of surprises. Yet surprises are inevitable. Most annual plan achievements are the outcome of getting to the numbers still after the surprises happened. We rarely reflect on what is lost or what are the costs in that process.

As Daniel Kahneman, notes above, the world is surprising. The world is even more surprising when we set out to make change, to improve things or to create new things. We never quite know in these scenarios what we are going to get. However, the inevitability of surprise is not an excuse for ignorance it is an imperative to plan for surprises, to build in agility and to adapt. Most surprises aren’t that surprising if you consider the risks and opportunities and plan for eventualities that are on the spectrum of possibility. Preparation helps mitigate the shock and panic of surprise on the African savannah and the modern organisation. Knowing whether to freeze, fight or take flight is essential preparation.

You will be surprised. Expect ‘mistakes’ to disrupt the certainty of performance expectations. Plan and prepare for it.

It was misfortune on that cold night
falling on someone’s house,
but not mine

Jackson Wheeler, How Good Fortune Surprises Us

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