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Surprise!: From CEOs to Navy SEALs: How a Select Group of Professionals Prepare for and Respond to the Unexpected

Dave Baiocchi
D. Steven Fox
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: RAND Corporation
Pages: 106
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    This report relates what professionals believe creates surprise, how they respond to it, and how the effects of surprise can be mitigated. RAND researchers interviewed representatives from 13 diverse professions and identified some common coping strategies, such as relying on past experience and trying to reduce the level of chaos in the environment.

    eISBN: 978-0-8330-8106-3
    Subjects: Management & Organizational Behavior, Sociology, Business

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-ii)
  2. Preface
    (pp. iii-iv)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  4. Figures and Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Summary
    (pp. xi-xx)

    Nearly all professionals—including laborers, knowledge workers, and policymakers—must deal with the unexpected. Indeed, many organizations face an operational environment that is faster paced, more uncertain, and filled with more variables than it was even ten years ago. Some professionals must respond to changes in their environment quickly—sometimes instantaneously—which makes planning for the unexpected of critical importance.

    Anecdotal evidence suggests that people in different occupations respond to unexpected situations, or surprises, in different ways. For example, every National Football League (NFL) coach develops a “playbook” that aims to catalogue and have a play ready for every possible...

  6. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xxi-xxii)
  7. Abbreviations
    (pp. xxiii-xxiv)
  8. CHAPTER ONE Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    It is hard to surprise Mike Wheaton.¹ A National Football League (NFL) coach for more than 20 years, Wheaton is one of the longest-serving coaches in franchise history. Over the span of his career, he has seen it all, including the time an opposing team punted the football in the middle of a blizzard, and the ball landed behind the punter for a loss of several yards. In a sport known for short-lived careers, Wheaton’s long tenure is a testament to his effectiveness: His job was to prepare his team so they would never be surprised by an opponent on...

  9. CHAPTER TWO Why Study Surprise?
    (pp. 5-6)

    Surprise is universal. Virtually all professionals must plan for and deal with unexpected events as part of their daily practice. This makes “occupational” surprise an attractive research topic since the lessons can apply across a range of professions.

    Our initial interest in surprise was motivated by work that RAND conducted for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The NRO—indeed, the entire U.S. Intelligence Community—faces an operational environment that is faster paced, more uncertain, and filled with more variables than it was even ten years ago. One of the biggest challenges facing the IC today is that they must confront...

  10. CHAPTER THREE Research Objective, Definitions, and Initial Conceptual Models
    (pp. 7-20)

    The comparison between the football coach and the Navy SEAL suggests how people working in these two occupations adopt divergent approaches toward handling surprise. The objective of our research was to identify how a broad spectrum of professions prepares for and responds to surprise. We sought to identify not only common, effective strategies that those professions used when responding to unexpected events, but also how and why their response strategies differed. This was in the context of our overall research objective, which was to identify practices that may be helpful to professionals in the U.S. Intelligence Community who are regularly...

  11. CHAPTER FOUR Research Hypotheses
    (pp. 21-28)

    After establishing the two key axes for our surprise space and identifying candidate professions, we next began to generate hypotheses about how practitioners in different parts of the surprise space might handle surprises. Figure 4.1 shows the axes populated with a sample set of professions.¹ Our goal when populating the array was to find one or two occupations for each intersection of X and Y axes. We began with the list shown in Table 3.1 and populated the surprise space with a subset of these professions. Examining the results allowed us to start generating hypotheses about how different professions might...

  12. CHAPTER FIVE Research Method
    (pp. 29-34)

    Our overall goal was to better understand how professionals deal with surprise, seeking to uncover lessons that would be generally applicable to other surprise practitioners. As we have already described, we began by generating the list of professions shown in Table 3.1. Next we developed a two-dimensional “surprise space,” shown in Figure 3.1, that builds on features noted in Klein’s decisionmaking model. This surprise space serves as a framework for organizing different professions according to the chaos of their operating environment and the amount of time available to respond to surprises.

    The next step was to populate the array with...

  13. CHAPTER SIX What Strategies Are Common Across Professions?
    (pp. 35-44)

    We begin the discussion of our results by highlighting four strategies that we found common to virtually all practitioners we interviewed. We list them briefly before providing more detail and context on each:

    Experience is a key element in dealing with surprise. Nearly everyone we spoke with told us there is no substitute for experience, which is one of the most effective ways to reduce the number and severity of surprise effects. Intuitively, this makes sense: Those practitioners with experience are less likely to be surprised because they have seen and experienced so many scenarios and outcomes throughout their career....

  14. CHAPTER SEVEN How Does the Level of Environmental Chaos Affect Practitioners’ Responses to Surprises?
    (pp. 45-60)

    Our initial model assumed that the level of environmental chaos was a primary influence on how practitioners prepare for surprise. Our discussions with surprise practitioners supported this hypothesis, but they also revealed some new insights about levels of chaos. We will summarize the two basic concepts that we were able to confirm, along with three unexpected insights:

    In less chaotic environments, practitioners rely more on specific, preplanned “what if” responses. Intuitively, this observation makes sense: If the size of the surprise space is small enough that the practitioner can reasonably develop a response plan for every possible scenario, then it...

  15. CHAPTER EIGHT How Do Strategists Differ from Tacticians in Dealing with Surprise?
    (pp. 61-64)

    According to our initial hypothesis, shown in Figure 4.1 in Chapter Four, practitioners can be sorted into two classes, depending on how much time they typically have available when responding to a surprise. Up to this point, we have highlighted the similarities in how both strategists and tacticians respond to surprise. However, we learned that the available response time does indeed affect how practitioners prepare for and respond to surprise. Overall, we observed several differences between the strategists and the tacticians:

    Strategists have to work harder at identifying and reacting to surprise. Communication and coordination are key elements for both...

  16. CHAPTER NINE Surprise as an Opportunity
    (pp. 65-68)

    Until near the end of each discussion with our surprise practitioners, we never guided the conversation to suggest that surprises could be positive or negative. Therefore, it was interesting to observe that nearly everyone associated surprise with negative—or at least potentially harmful—outcomes. Toward the end of conversations, we asked the practitioners if they ever considered that surprises could represent positive opportunities. The responses to this question varied, but the discussions that followed yielded two insights:

    Some surprises only yield direct benefits if you prepare in advance to take advantage of them. Without preparation for these events, it is...

  17. CHAPTER TEN Helpful Lessons from Specific Professions
    (pp. 69-72)

    In addition to all of the techniques described above, we observed two occupation-specific viewpoints that may provide additional help when responding to surprise:

    Accept what has happened and build on it in a constructive manner. The improv actor noted that the phrase “Yes, and…” is one of the fundamental tenets in improvisational theater.¹ This perspective is a useful lesson for dealing with surprise because it encourages the practitioner to accept what happened and focus their energy on moving forward instead of questioning why or rejecting the current reality.

    Look outside immediate circles of influence for help and counsel. We observed...

  18. CHAPTER ELEVEN Key Observations and Their Implications
    (pp. 73-80)

    Our overall goal in conducting this research was to learn how different occupations respond to surprise so we could help identify ways that people (and organizations) could become more flexible and agile. We began by presenting a framework that allowed us to classify our set of professions by reaction time and level of chaos (Figure 4.1 in Chapter Four). We used this framework to develop a set of hypotheses that were primarily based on the belief that different classes of occupations (as characterized by our framework in Figure 4.1) will respond to surprise in different ways. We then tested our...

  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 81-82)