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How to turn a surprise into your next big idea

Can we incorporate surprise – the core essence of uncertainty – into our business and innovation strategies? In Fast Company, Soren Kaplan argues yes.

When Canon USA President and CEO Yoroku “Joe” Adachi recently launched the EOS 5D Mark II camera geared toward general photo enthusiasts, something unexpected happened. Accolades poured in from professional videographers across Hollywood. With video quality that matched that of more specialized cameras used for television commercials, this less expensive point-and-shoot camera delivered a pleasant surprise to professionals. To Adachi’s own surprise, the Mark II had unintentionally begun disrupting the high-end professional video market. Canon is now developing cameras specifically designed for this profitable niche--and leapfrogging the competition in the process.

Most companies view surprises as things to be avoided. Even positive surprises like Canon’s are considered fortunate anomalies, far from being the cornerstone of any real strategy. The underlying assumption is that predictability and control are good, and uncertainty is bad. No wonder every management book on Amazon with the word “surprise” in its title is about how to prevent the phenomenon. But here’s the counterintuitive catch: If you want a breakthrough, something that really changes the game, surprise is actually the name of the game.

The premise is simple: Breakthroughs surprise the market with something dramatically new. Think Apple, Netflix, Cirque du Soleil, or OpenTable. That’s the no-brainer.

But here’s the management mind-bender. Breakthroughs – whether products, services, business models or business processes – don’t come from big visions, bold goals, and meticulous plans. While these may be starting points, many leaders acknowledge that unexpected experiences actually play pivotal roles in their breakaway successes.

Jim Collins and Morten Hansen, authors of Great by Choice, for example, recently found that leaders from the most successful modern-day companies pointed to “luck events” as essential ingredients of their long-term success (that’s right – luck!). It’s one thing to recognise in retrospect that the unexpected played a role in our success. But is it possible to incorporate surprise – the core essence of uncertainty – into our business and innovation strategies?

Some companies are already doing it.

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