After a much appreciated surprise party, Alan considers how surprises in business are often considered to be a bad thing but if used well, they can be an effective weapon against dullness and predictability.

To celebrate a significant birthday, I was the unsuspecting and somewhat bewildered subject of a surprise party.  A carefully selected group of family and friends were secretly drawn together to spring the ‘surprise!’  

Due to the secret-agent like skills of my wife, I had absolutely no idea it was about to happen. Not a clue.  The whole evening for me, was a most wonderful, heart-warming and life-affirming experience.  However, I recognize that some people would rather walk over hot coals than be the recipient of such a surprise.

So what about in business – are surprises always unwelcome?

The golden rule does seem to be ‘no surprises!’ 

The most obvious example is costs.  We have been both the guilty party and the victim of serious discrepancies between the quoted estimate and the reality.  Costs can and will change during the life-cycle of a project, but whatever else you do, especially where budget is definitive and tight, always communicate with the interested parties regularly and never put off a difficult conversation because you think it might be easier later.  It won’t.  It never is.  It is always harder.

Here’s some more examples of unwelcome surprises in business we can think of:

  • People. Changing personnel, at short notice, away from a known and trusted individual.  Unforeseen circumstances can occur, but if you know there is a potential clash looming, be upfront about it and NEVER make something up – you’ll get found out.
  • Capability.  It really isn’t worth saying “Of course we can do that”, when you really can’t.  When you subsequently fail to deliver, you lose all credibility and destroy trust. 
  • Deadlines.  If you’re going to be three weeks late delivering the project, don’t wait until the day before delivery.
  • Mistakes/ Serious issues.  Share them when they happen.  Avoid hearing the phrase “Why wasn’t I told earlier?”

So, what about welcome surprises, can there be such a thing?  Bearing in mind I like them, here’s what I would advocate.  

1. The regular meeting.  

We all know what to expect from the weekly check-in, the finance call, the team brief, the steering group etc.  The next time you attend one, which has become a little stale and uninspiring, be the one to spring a surprise.  Book a harp-player, have someone under 10 make the presentation, hold the meeting at the ice-rink. 

Now, bear in mind that these are the ideas that popped into my head, but please use ones that pop into yours and always be conscious of the context.  If the meeting is business critical and a decision has to be reached that secures the future of the company, then …it’s not the time to be dressed as Marie-Antoinette. But if it’s a regular meeting that needs pepping up, well, go on then….pep it up.

2. The annual conference. 

Shift the thinking and include a surprise.  Again, this might be as simple as replacing a coffee break with vodka jellies (sorry, it’s what popped into my head), but if you are involved in the planning and it looks like conference 101, do everyone a favour and put something unexpected in there.  It is possible to ring the changes, have fun and delight people without offending anyone. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the many airplane safety announcements on You-Tube.  

The information is still presented, but the audience is engaged, enthused and more than anything, delighted with their surprise. 

Looking to make an impact at your employee or leadership conference?

How to use the element of surprise effectively 

You will always be faced with detractors when you suggest something different, mostly through a fear of possible embarrassment.  But remember this:

  1. Why should predictable and serious have a monopoly on content creation?  Dull is dull and should be avoided.
  2. You will never change anything if you always play it safe and toe the line.  Whilst never being crass or insensitive, just take a risk and plan something surprising.
I’m delighted to say that for an upcoming conference, we are about to discuss the possibility of delivering some surprises. I do hope that we’ll be able to reproduce the fantastic feeling that I experienced for all the delegates.
I’ll let you know.

    Want to signal a shift or make an impact at your next event? Drop us a line on danielle@purplemonster.co.uk or call us on +44 (0) 1926 311347 and we can bring your ideas to life! 



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