Surprise is a powerful strategy in its own rights. Surprise means being ahead of the game, being further ahead than others thought you would be, being able to pull out an organizational solution, disclose the next new idea when nobody was expecting one, take a rabbit out of the hat, bring to the market something that nobody has asked for.
Surprise the market, surprise your boss, surprise yourself, surprise your followers, surprise your teams, surprise the guys in corporate. All of them.
I know what you are thinking. Your boss does not like surprises. In fact, there are two types of bosses who don’t want surprises. Type one is the one who does not want bad surprises. Type two, the one who does not want any surprise at all, good or bad. Type one is understood; nobody wants bad news. You would not set out to surprise with bad news. Not on purpose! The later is a tricky one, because there are many people who, in fact, hate unpredictability. For them ‘meeting the budget’ is better than being surprised with savings. In other words, predictable numbers are better than unpredictable ones, even if these are better numbers. If you head a cost centre, such as R&D, spending every penny or cent may be ‘better’ than producing ‘an under-spend’. I’ve seen people labelled as bad managers by not spending what they said they would. If you don’t understand this, you may have not run one of these. Markets also like predictability. Investors like your accuracy. The whole industry of ‘fixed mortgages’ is based on the beauty and comfort of predictability. Surprising needs guts.
I hear all that. Yet, I will repeat myself. Surprise the market, surprise your boss, surprise yourself, surprise your followers, surprise your teams, surprise the guys in corporate. I am confident that you know what I mean.
The trade offs are: predictability and safe journey, or surprise and leadership. Nobody can argue against safe journeys, so you will be forgiven for ‘meeting expectations’. I personally dislike the ‘exceeding expectations’ expression. It sounds like heavy rain. I prefer surprise, regardless of expectations.
I think that a case can perhaps be made for predictability over positive surprises in day-to-day company operations, though I wouldn’t enjoy working in an organization where predictability is treated as the prime virtue. In research, it should be all about surprises (though your people need the discipline to follow through on their best surprising ideas — not just flit around from one surprise to another).
I once worked as a researcher in one of the historically-great corporate research labs in the U.S., part of a large, well-known tech company. They had a management tool called the “personal business commitment”. I think this was installed in all their business divisions, and they just implemented this in their research organization as well, perhaps without thinking. The idea was that each person would meet with their boss once a year, and together they would agree on a set of goals that the researcher would “commit to” achieving in the coming year. And at the end of the year, you meet again, go down the year-old commitment list, and check off whether each goal had been exceeded, achieved, partially achieved, or not achieved. Then these check-marks would be added up. Your rating, which determined your performance bonus, was based on these check-marks.
So the implicit message was clear: “What we value, even in our research organization, is your ability to predict a year in advance what you will accomplish. Period. If you spotted an opportunity or had a great idea and went after it, even if you achieved an exciting result within the year, that is not valued. Stick to your checklist if you want to succeed here.” A few managers would “cheat” and reward researchers for creative surprises that were not predicted, but this was not the norm — after all, they had their own checklists to live up to.
If I were sent on a secret mission to paralyze and destroy some thriving research organization, this is the first policy I would put in place. I can’t think of a more poisonous doctrine for research, or really for any job in a fast-changing business environment. When I had the opportunity to run my own research lab for a while, the researchers knew that I would be disappointed if they DID NOT surprise me from time to time — that was their job.