Surprise Management: Diversify to Weather Tough Times

Today’s businesses have used Change Management and Risk Management with varying degrees of success. While these strategies can help companies prepare for an unknown future, they fall just short of accomplishing the strategic goals that 21st century companies need if they are to keep pace with rapidly changing market conditions. What will it take to fill the gaps in these two theories? Surprise Management.


We all know how disconcerting change can be. And when we add surprise to the equation, we face a huge organizational challenge. Uncertainty, unpredictability, and our all-too-human inability to dictate outcomes are facts of life that organizations must address if they are to thrive.

The natural fear of uncertainty often leads organizations to implement uncertainty-reduction (or risk-management) measures—and hence the development of Risk Management theory. Many have tried to eliminate “the surprise factor”—with varying degrees of success. One method that’s been suggested for eliminating surprise is to anticipate surprises before they happen and take appropriate steps to minimize their occurrence—certainly a commendable goal. Yet, a surprise by its very nature cannot be foreseen. (Otherwise it wouldn’t be a surprise.)

A more realistic way of phrasing the above goal might be to say that reducing surprise involves an attempt to predict what could go wrong (i.e. to project risk) and put in place preventive measures against these potential problem occurrences—measures which not only minimize the overall number of occurrences but also reduce the number that are actually surprises. It is only in this sense that Risk Management can “eliminate the surprise factor.” While it would be impossible to anticipate the surprises themselves, this thorough projection of future possibilities would undoubtedly help eliminate some surprises, simply because the organization would now be aware that these eventualities could potentially occur. Yet, the success of this approach in managing surprise is limited.

In contrast, Change Management, by providing both managers and workers with the tools they need to handle the reality of change across a rapidly evolving business landscape—and perhaps equipping them for various specific future eventualities—can at least help an organization prepare for surprises, if not reduce the frequency of their occurrence.

Surprise Management: A More Comprehensive and More Flexible Approach

Surprise Management—a concept which is thoroughly analyzed in a 2005 article in the British Journal of Management, “Surprises in Management and Organization: Concept, Sources and A Typology”—presents the rationale for addressing unwelcome (and perhaps even welcome) surprises through the concept of diversification (despite the authors’ non-use of that specific term).

The authors define surprise as “any event that happens unexpectedly, or any expected event that takes an unexpected turn.” The main point of the piece may be distilled into the following brief summary: Because unpredictable events and unexpected turns of events (aka, surprises) cannot be precisely controlled, a more diversified and more flexible approach is needed for an effective response.

As the authors state, “Surprises can potentially result in organizational catastrophes (e.g., Shrivastava, 1992),” and they therefore conclude that “rather than merely insisting on the prediction of surprises, organizational researchers should investigate how organizations might develop the resilience and mindfulness necessary to deal with unanticipated events.”

Surprise Management Tools

A few surprise-management strategies the authors recommend for developing such mindful resilience follow:

  • Bricolage (constructing a solution from whatever diverse resources may be at hand)
  • Improvization (“the ability to access creativity in the moment and under pressure, to resolve or direct the resolution of a situation to meet [company] objectives…”)
  • Distributed decision-making (a decision-making process [that is] distributed across multiple participants, each of whom contributes to the final decision by performing one or more tasks)
  • Minimal structuring (implementing “a set of consensual guidelines[,] agreements, [and] co-ordination devices that attempt to focus the activities of people around a common set of goals and deadlines without limiting their discretion to best decide how to reach these goals)
  • Dynamic adaptive capabilities (“the capacity of…institutional approaches to permit actions that are effective ‘adaptive’ responses to changing environmental circumstances”)

The above approaches combine to provide the diversified organizational response that today’s enterprises need to skillfully manage the surprises that might otherwise prove catastrophic to their successful operation—helping them not just survive, but thrive.

About the Author: Guest post contributed by Sarah Carling, on behalf of

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