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.
OF: What can a manager or business owner do to foster a culture that is open to surprise?
SK: Most leaders and companies can point to defining moments that resulted from being surprised. Make these experiences explicit and talk about them. Recognize the role that surprise played in shaping where you are today. There are also techniques that can be used to find surprises, which then help create a culture that values the unexpected. Find customers using your products or services in the “wrong” way, for example. Discover “untargeted” customers who are using your products or services, listen for market misperceptions, and flip negative surprises into positive opportunities
OF: What’s the first step anyone should take to start getting closer to a business breakthrough?
SK: Actually there are two complementary things—a mindset shift and a practical step. The mindset shift involves tuning into the value of surprise itself. Look back at the unexpected events that have already shaped your personal and professional life. Realize that more are coming.
The practical step involves putting a stake in the ground around what you want to create or transform as part of your breakthrough. Once you have a sense of overall direction, which will shape your lens on the world, you’re better able to find the most meaningful surprises.
OF: Why do you say breakthroughs begin with yourself, not the market?
SK: Customers rarely ask for a game-changing breakthrough. Target never did market research. They became “Tar-zjay” because they decided that they would be known for great design. Apple created the iPod and iTunes because they wanted it for themselves, not because customers asked for it. If you want a breakthrough, you need to do something that’s meaningful for yourself first and foremost. After you’ve figured that out, then go out and test your ideas with customers and let the surprises roll in.
OF: Did you have your own “Aha moment” of surprise that led to your research and conclusions?
SK: The whole insight behind “the power of surprise” came from a surprise of my own. During a year living in Paris, I stumbled upon a café and was utterly surprised by its entire approach to business. Out of 35,000 bistros and cafés, the cafe was ranked as the top coffee spot in Paris by the New York Times and also by the author of The Sweet Life of Paris. My own experience around how the café surprised me shifted my entire focus. I started researching surprise and talking to leaders, who had created game-changing innovations, to learn about what role surprise played in the back stories of their more public success stories.
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