The Element of Surprise


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In moderate to highly chaotic environments, a key challenge is to understand what is happening when a surprise occurs.

The Element of Surprise - Wikipedia

That is, the range of possibilities may be generally known, but that does not always mean professionals will recognize the features of a particular situation as it is unfolding. Once the nature of a surprise is recognized as similar to something the practitioner has encountered previously, the response can be focused and precise either a specific plan worked out in advance or the appropriate general-response strategy , whereas the response to an unrecognized situation must be more tentative and generic until additional information is collected.

While the environment can introduce a wide range of factors that contribute to unexpected situations, the actions of other humans typically create the most chaotic situations. For example, a test pilot will primarily face surprises caused by his or her environment weather, the plane's mechanics, etc. This is different from a Navy SEAL, who — in addition to facing surprises caused by the environment weather, terrain, domestic animals, etc.


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Facing other humans often adds complexity to a situation because individuals operate with independent thought and their actions are often unpredictable, especially when a large number of people interact with each other. When people are at the root of a surprise, the level of complexity increases, and this dramatically magnifies the difficulty of developing specific response plans ahead of time.

element of surprise

For professionals in the most chaotic environments, their biggest surprises may arise from the actions of a third party e. People usually have a good understanding of their most direct threats; i. This still leaves professionals open and vulnerable to less predictable third-party actions, even when that third party has no adversarial intent.

Nearly all of our participants told us that nothing substitutes for experience — experience represents the best insurance policy for mitigating against possible negative effects caused by surprise. Experience is what allows professionals to quickly identify and implement a response to an unfolding surprise.

iwchloremeran.ml Practically speaking, this means that teams and organizations seeking to minimize surprise need to attract and retain the most experienced people, since they represent an organization's best general defense against the negative effects of surprise. In addition to experience, we identified two more steps that professionals can take to mitigate the negative effects of surprise. We found that the most successful professionals respond to surprise with measured responses at first, rather than reacting with the full extent of available resources.

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This approach provides decisionmakers with more flexibility as the situation unfolds. We also found that not all surprises need to be negative — especially when the workforce is instilled with a mindset to convert surprises into opportunities or learning experiences. We found that all practitioners interviewed say they take measures to reduce the level of chaos — the number of unknowns and complicating variables — within their work environments, citing a number of specific examples.

A thoracic surgeon with whom we spoke reduces chaos by working with the same instruments and team of nurses for every surgery. Test pilots only execute one maneuver at a time; in addition, the planes are heavily instrumented with sensors to provide immediate feedback when something unusual happens.

The operators of the Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity have a test unit in Pasadena, California, that they use to practice new maneuvers before deploying the actual rovers on Mars. Top-level strategists are often in charge of large groups of people or whole organizations and will usually not be the first person in the organization to recognize an unexpected event.

Individuals within an organizational hierarchy tend to be more reliant on a team approach to both detect and handle surprises. Successful strategists therefore benefit from a network of trusted colleagues at all levels of the organization. These networks can also function as "surprise sensors," greatly expanding the chief strategist's field of view.

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