A Crazy Idea for Managing Projects Based on Surprise

Put your skeptic’s hat on… this is going to be out there.

NPR aired a segment yesterday about an economist’s view of suspense and surprise. Suspense means wondering what’s going to happen, and surprise means getting an abrupt change of perspective.

Economists[1] argue that suspense and surprise make an activity engaging, and that there are ways to optimize both to heighten the effect. Too little and the activity is boring; too much and it’s overwhelming. One fact about surprise that emerged when NPR interviewed the authors alongside a novelist and a film maker was that all three disciplines agreed that a good target for the number of big surprises—plot twists, unexpected goals, or mindset changes—is three.

We also know from Gallup’s extensive research on HR that the only workforce factor that is positively correlated with profit is employee engagement. So organizations across the landscape spend time, effort, and energy to increase engagement through team-building, communication, career development, incentives, and so on.

As far as I know, no one has tried to scope projects to make them optimally engaging.

What exactly, would that look like? (I’m making it up now, in case you were wondering.) Just for context, let’s say we are working on an enterprise analytics project. We have a design phase, an implementation phase, then, of course, the organization has to do something with whatever we build to make it useful.

We already know about the design phase. Wando Orlikowski’s wonderful research showed that these projects produce better results if the team has a major mind shift literally half way through. So surprise number one comes in design, after the team has struggled a bit with what they need to do.

Surprise number three is easy too. When the users take up our analytics system and put it through its paces, it will tell them important facts they don’t already know. Aha! For example, our most profitable line of business is the unglamorous maintenance service we were thinking of discontinuing. Or our procurement-to-manufacturing-to-distribution-to-sales-to-cash cycle, for our perishable product is more than two years.

Surprise number two, now that’s going to be challenging. What we need is one and only one big surprise in execution. This would argue for edging out technically, but not too far. We would want to deliberately target one area for learning. It could mean using a tool or capability that is new to us. It could mean adding a new member to the team. It could mean using our proven technology, but setting a deadline that is very aggressive.

What if we want to do all of these things? Our experts would agree. Don’t try to cram it all in one project (or novel or film). We would shape the scope of the project to limit it to three surprises only. Then declare victory, feel the love, and gear up for the next go.


[1] See “Surprise and Suspense” by Jeffrey Ely, Alexander Frankel, and Emir Kamenica in the Journal of Political Economy, March 2015.

By | 2018-03-09T15:14:27+00:00 May 25th, 2016|Project Management|0 Comments