Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 5;   February 4, 2004: No Surprises

No Surprises

by

If you tell people "I want no surprises," prepare for disappointment. For the kind of work that most of us do, surprises are inevitable. Still, there's some core of useful meaning in "I want no surprises," and if we think about it carefully, we can get what we really need.

Beth looked at Philippe. Philippe looked at Jim. Jim looked at Beth. When they realized what they were doing, they all chuckled. "You. No you. No you," said Beth. "Seriously," she continued, "someone has to tell him."

Jack-in-the-boxJim was more serious. "It's a suicide mission. You know how he always says 'no surprises' in all caps. I don't think I'll be the one."

Philippe had an idea. "There must be some way to spin this so it isn't so awful sounding," he said.

Beth, Jim, and Philippe are trying to figure out a way to break some bad news to somebody who evidently has a well advertised "no surprises" policy. They might find a way this time, but "no surprises" is a risky way to run things. Here's a little of what can go wrong with a "no surprises" policy.

Too broad a message
If your policy is "no surprises," then you're saying that you don't want any good surprises either. Probably you don't mean that.
It's an unattainable goal
Surprises are inevitable in projects. Operations and projects differ in that projects are unique and first-of-a-kind. Surprises are the essence of project work.
When a surprise does happen, you have a new problem
If your policy is "no surprises," and a surprise happens, you have two problems. Not only do you have to deal with the surprise, but you also have a violation of policy. Because policy violations usually require disciplinary action, the policy itself creates a problem.
People find workarounds
A "no surprises" policy
could create some
unpleasant surprises
Above, Philippe is about to suggest that they slant the truth to avoid the surprising bad news. Slanting the truth is almost always a bad idea.

Instead of "no surprises," why not ask for what you really need? Some possibilities:

No surprises — really
If this is what you need, then unique, first-of-a-kind projects aren't within your reach. Instead, move into an operational role, where everything you do is like something done before. Surprises are less common in operations.
Keep me so well informed that I know whatever you know
This would be nice, if it weren't micromanagement. It's so intrusive that it's irritating for everyone involved. And if two people in an organization know all the same things, one of them is redundant.
If it's a surprise to me, it should be a surprise to you, too
This is more reasonable, and it's what you probably need, too, provided you allow for the pace of events exceeding anyone's ability to keep you up to date. Allow a reasonable time lag between others' learning of the event and their passing it along to you.

There will always be surprises, and here's one: The trick for dealing with surprises is not to avoid them, but to get really good at recovering from them. Go to top Top  Next issue: Decision-Making and the Straw Man  Next Issue

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Reader Comments

Alex S. Brown (www.alexsbrown.com)
At first read, I was surprised that your column was against a "No Surprises" policy. I often emphasize this point to my own staff.
The more I read, though, the better I understood. The column makes good points about overly controlling, impossible policies. When I need "no surprises" on a project, I mean something like the "if it's a surprise to me, it should be to you" version.
The way I explain it is, "If I am going to hear about something on your project and it will surprise me, I want to hear it from you first. If you are not sure whether I will be surprised or whether I will hear about it, err on the side of caution: tell me about it. If you are sure I will be surprised, tell me about it as soon as you can." People take a couple of weeks to figure out what is important and what is not, but it seems to build an open relationship quickly. Also, because it emphasizes "You tell me about it," people know that I want them to tell me about bad news and quickly.
I bet the fictional manager in your story also suffers from the "shoot the messenger" syndrome. No matter what official policies you have, people will never tell you bad news if you punish the people who bring the news. Personally, I just ask them for solutions, and give them help and support if they need it. So far, it has worked well for me.
Thanks for another thought-provoking column. — Alex

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