Brain power

Regulating surprises

I read an interesting recent blog post by Mark Britz titled “The Unsurprisable Organization” (hat tip to Mike Taylor) in which he argues that an agile, responsive, connected workforce greatly reduces the ability for surprises to happen. I think I agree about 90% with this idea but I want to add a little nuance to it.

A surprise is defined as the difference between expectation and reality. We often think of surprises as a bad thing, but surprises can be positive, like when you find a $20 bill on the sidewalk. They can even be a relief, as when you discover that the apparition standing over you really is an undigested bit of beef and not the ghost of your dead partner Jacob Marley.

So the real question is how do we design our organizations such that we filter out the bad surprises and multiply the good ones? The first step is understanding the difference between an individual surprise and an organizational surprise. And to do that, we have to take a step back and think about the difference between individual and organizational knowledge.

One way to define knowledge is as usable, actionable information. It’s why everyone always complains about too much information but nobody ever complains about too much knowledge. So it’s possible for something to be “known” at one level but not at another, which can lead to an organization that is stupid even though it’s full of smart people. It’s a little like sitting in a bar after a long night with every one of your neurons individually screaming “Enough! Enough!” yet YOU (the agglomeration of all those neurons) thinks “Sure, I’ll have another one. What’s the harm?”

Here’s an extreme example but not an impossible one to imagine. We’ve all been on teams where everyone knew that disaster was coming but we all kept on plugging away because no one had the guts to speak up. Now imagine that this situation occurs across the entire organization: Every single employee knows that the current path forward is not the right one but nobody wants to be the one to say it, so the organization keeps heading obliviously toward the cliff of impending doom. The paradox is that every individual knows it’s wrong but the organization still acts as if it is not aware of the situation.

This paradox actually has a name in social psychology: The Abilene Paradox. The name comes from a funny story that I won’t go into here, but it’s well worth reading. My point is that the paradox says it’s possible for a group of people to all consciously work against their own best interests, which means it’s possible for an organization to be surprised even when its members can see what’s coming.

Surprise-O-MeterNegative organizational surprises are like tumors; they often start small and localized but can fester and spread through the entire body if not discovered early enough. So how to we fix this? How do we create a system that decreases the likelihood of bad surprises and increases the likelihood of good ones? Mark Britz has it right that the key is an agile, responsive, connected workforce. To get that, we need an active, vibrant, enterprise social network. This then becomes our “surprise-o-meter,” allowing us to tweak the organizational dials to crank up the positive and tamp down the negative.

To minimize negative surprises, ensure that your organization is working out loud in an open and transparent way. A simple approach to breaking the Abilene Paradox is to create an environment where people feel that it’s likely that everyone else already knows what they know, so that they are not inhibited in speaking up because they will be expecting agreement. When everyone can see what everyone else is doing, everyone knows (at least in theory) what everyone else is working on, but more importantly everyone knows that others know what they are doing. Being in the habit of routinely sharing what you’re doing makes it easier to share in the bad times as well as the good.

To maximize positive surprises, inject as much novelty into your enterprise social network as possible. Pull in feeds from external sources. Encourage social groups to discuss hobbies and interests. Create a water cooler and let employees post whatever they want. You never know what might spark an employee’s imagination that could lead to a whole new marketing strategy or product line. And the best part is that a well-managed ESN or online community not only provides opportunities for innovation today, but creates a repository of serendipity to foster innovation long into the future.

Surprises can’t be completely eliminated, but they can be filtered and regulated if we design our organizations so that they’re smart enough to do it.

Article source: Regulating Surprises.

Header image source: Robin Higgins on Pixabay, Public Domain.

Dennis Pearce

Dennis Pearce is a knowledge management and social business / collaboration strategist with extensive experience in engineering, manufacturing, IT, strategic planning, process improvement, and change management.

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