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

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Nearly all professionals 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 10 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 situation that might occur during a game. In contrast, a Navy Sea, Air, Land SEAL special forces member cannot possibly anticipate every type of situation that might occur in a military operating environment and therefore cannot catalogue all the what if scenarios. Instead, the SEAL prepares for the unexpected by focusing on important but broad parameters relevant to every mission What is the mission goal What is the route to the target What are the primary threats the team is likely to face Such observations provoked questions about how different professions prepare for and respond to surprise, as well as an interest in deriving lessons on how professionals of all sorts can become more adept at planning for an uncertain future. This report represents an investigation into what diverse professionals believe creates surprise, how they respond to it, and how the effects of surprise can be mitigated. To explore these issues, we explored existing literature on decisionmaking, used this material as context for developing a framework for thinking about how different professionals respond to surprise, and conducted discussions with a wide variety of professionals. In our discussions, we asked questions that sought to highlight the techniques and tools each person relies on when responding to surprise.

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  • Psychology
  • Personnel Management and Labor Relations

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