“OK, surprise me,” said no executive ever. Or at least almost never. The refrain from the top is far more frequently “I want no surprises”.
Yet, I’m encouraging you to embrace surprises and even build a culture that fosters them. There is tremendous opportunity and enlightenment in surprises – even the bad ones.
This point of view is not the prevailing one in business.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to the CEO of a large credit union who said he is rarely surprised, but the speed at which the economy had shifted as a result of COVID-19 had left him stunned. He repeated how little he liked surprises. And, he is not alone.
Most of the business books you are likely to read talk about how to avoid surprises. Of course, operationally, you want to have processes and controls in place to ensure predictable results. But when the unexpected happens, you may learn something that points out a weakness in a control or procedure or, as with COVID-19, a bad surprise highlights that our resiliency and continuity plans were not sophisticated enough to cover every contingency.
My management approach turns “no surprises” upside down. It’s based on a key point that there is no way you know everything needed to grow your business, delight your members, or fully engage your teammates.
As head of Strategic Technology at one of the world’s largest banks, I encouraged my team to seek out unexpected developments, to find learnings that challenged our conventional way of thinking, to bring new ideas and perspectives that would widen our view and deepen our understanding of the issues. My refrain? “Surprise me.”
And, it works. By embracing surprises:
- You will learn things that will make your organization more effective as you get smarter about your members, your operating environment, your competitors, and yourself.
- You will become more agile as you learn to leverage the learnings that are inherent in surprises.
- Your teammates will be more engaged. Great teams embrace new ways of thinking, new ways of doing, and love the process of exploration.
So how do you get started with this unconventional open-minded approach?
Your marketing team is a great place to start. When was the last time they learned something about your member base that surprised the organization? I guarantee that if they start running experiments, really testing new concepts, new price points, different messaging campaigns, unique pricing bundles, they will be surprised about your members’ needs, expectations, and behaviors.
I love the right kind of surprises – the kind that teach me something I did not know, something I did not understand, or show me that something I thought was so was not. Surprises are about making you, your team, and your organization open minded, smarter, and better.
So stop running from surprises, stop fearing the unknown. If you create a culture that encourages – even demands – a constant state of learning, you will be surprised at how great surprises can be!