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Tania Luna is a “Surprisologist” and co-author with LeeAnn Renninger of the book, “Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected

Though many workers tend to see surprise as a bad thing – a sudden downturn in business, an unexpectedly poor performance evaluation  – Luna argues that in our increasingly uncertain world, learning not only to survive, but thrive in ambiguity and unpredictability are critical skills for both workers and companies. She explains:

Q: Many people tend to think of surprise as a bad thing at work. Why are you looking at surprise, and how did you come to think about it differently?

Luna: I specialize in surprise, but most of the work I do is at LifeLabs in New York. We predominantly work with companies that are experiencing a lot of surprise and change. Not that things were stable, and then got surprising. But things are perpetually surprising. The norm is, you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.

We work with Etsy, Square Space, Venmo and others who are doing things really differently. They’re innovative and disruptive. Their norm is constant surprise. At LifeLabs, we think, ‘If our new reality is consistently surprising, changing and unexpected, what are the skills and cultural norms we need in order to survive and thrive?’ Rather than think of it as a threat to the brain.

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Q: A threat to the brain?

Luna: On the one hand, we don’t like surprise. It makes us feel vulnerable and brings up our fight-or-flight response. On the other hand, if we don’t have enough surprise, our brains crave it. We need to have surprise, spontaneity, novelty. So we work on helping firms reduce negative surprise, so people feel safer, more comfortable and certain, and add positive surprise so people feel excited, challenged, and engaged.

Q: And with the technology, globalization, the changing nature of businesses and the rise of contract and temp work, freelancing, and the “gig” economy, I imagine surprise is something that more firms, and more people are going to have to learn how to deal with, right?

Luna: Right. We’re shifting from seeing the word ‘disruptive’ as destructive, a problem – disruption, seems like a bad thing, right? But more and more industries are seeing disruption as a goal. Netflix disrupted the whole video rental industry, Oscar is disrupting the whole insurance industry.

We’ve done things the old way for a long time. Now, you’re going to be successful if you think about breaking the old pattern to do something different. So we need new skills and mindsets to manage the surprise that comes along with that. You can’t disrupt something and create safety and security.

The companies we work with are the the tip of the iceberg. I think more and more larger, slower, traditional companies are saying, ‘We have to catch up to these disruptive, smaller companies. We have to create more surprise.’ Or they’re saying, ‘We’re changing because of various factors in the environment, and we have to survive that change.”

One of the biggest misperceptions is that things are going to change, then they’re going to be stable again. But they don’t do that anymore. They just keep changing.

Q: So, knowing we humans crave stability, what can workers and companies do not just to survive, but thrive in this new era?

Luna: Some of it is skill based:

1. Ask good questions: That’s one thing that’s really imperative for surviving instability. You have to become a really good question-asker, so you’re pulling information toward you, rather than waiting for it to trickle down to you.

2. Communicate clearly in the chaos: In an uncertain environment, incredibly strong communication skills become more important. Imagine a crew working on a ship in a thunderstorm. Everyone has to be so clear, communicating everything they’re seeing, everything they’re doing to navigate through all the chaos.

It’s the same thing in our companies and our relationships. We need to be very, very clear communicators.

3. See surprise as an opportunity: We suggest shifting from seeing surprise as a problem, toward constantly re-framing it, asking, ‘What’s the opportunity here? What’s the learning opportunity? The growth opportunity? The connection opportunity?

4. Listen: Just being an actual, genuine listener of what is really happening, versus what you think is happening, or what you hope is happening, is a really important skill. Most of us listen for what we want to hear, rather than what is being said. Learning to set aside preconceived notions and being open to a totally different perspective, a different opinion is an important skill.

5. Learn to tolerate ambiguity: We tend to want one answer. One point of view. Even when I was in college, that’s one of the things we were taught, the skill of debate, and the skill of having and informing a strong opinion. I think that has its place. But increasingly, rather than fighting for our view, we need to be really open to embracing this gray zone, where maybe some part of my view is right, maybe some part of your view is right, or it’s somewhere in the middle and nobody is sure.

Our society conditioned us to be opinionated, but the more useful skills now are to consider, question and deliberate.

[Boomers vs. Millennials at work — in cartoons!]

Q: Why is it more important now to embrace ambiguity?

Luna: It’s much easier to get things done fast. It used to be, you’d come up with a plan, it would take years to put into action, and even longer to figure out if it was a good idea. Now, we can create things really fast, get feedback really fast on whether it’s working or not. So you have to be willing to experiment. To try things without having 100 percent of the information up front.

I think it’s also because there wasn’t as much diversity and complexity of opinion and perspective in the past. Aand now that we’re increasingly diverse, which is so exciting and cool – people’s beliefs and ethnic background, age, their professional background – that diversity means that we have to just be better able to accept other people’s perspectives.

More traditional companies tend to separate people out by department or age. But increasing diversity means embracing more tolerance.

And there seems to be more and more of a push to be innovative. In order to be innovative, you have to have tolerance for ambiguity – looking at things differently, coming up with a solution that didn’t exist before. You have to be able to see the world differently. That usually doesn’t happen in a flash. It usually happens after you’ve sat with a murky question for awhile, collected a bunch of information that you’re not sure what you’re going to use it for. It’s about having a curious mindset, that eventually, all that information will become useful.

Q: What are things companies can do to better handle ambiguity and surprise?

Luna: There’s a lot of talk about transparency for a reason. When there’s a lot of change, a lot of surprise, a lot of ambiguity, people crave as much certainty as they can get, which usually means more information.

When things are moving really fast, each person has more autonomy to act and make decisions. So transparency empowers people to make decisions on their own, rather than wait for someone at some office to tell them what to do.

When things are transparent, everyone in the company knows what the company’s priorities are, what the challenges are, what’s going on in board meetings.

There’s also more need for trust when there’s a lot of surprise, because surprise is scary. So the antidote to uncertainty is the feeling of certainty in the relationships you form at work. Transparency helps create trust.

This is also where adding playful surprise comes in.

Q: Playful surprise?

Luna: I think that companies that thrive in the midst of surprise are really playful. They find novel, surprising opportunities to connect to one another, and develop new skills in playful ways.

Like Lunchtime Roulette. This is becoming increasingly popular. A lottery tells you who you’re going to have lunch with, and the company sponsors you and a small group to all go to lunch together.

Or putting on a talent show. Decorating the office in a playful and quirky way. Having a lunch-and-learn series, where people come in during lunch to teach really, really random things, from juggling to neuropsychology to plumbing. The idea is, you expose your brain to totally different ideas, different experiences, mixing surprise in with how you experience the world, so you come up with a new idea, a new perspective.

There’s a company called Quirky. They have a Mandatory Black Out. The whole company is shut down, so everyone can take off and explore, have new experiences.

Etsy has the Ministry of Unusual Business, a secret group of people who go around throughout the company and do something nice for people.

Little moments of delight, when you have surprising, delightful things happen. At Zappos, they have finger rockets. When things get stressful, people shoot finger rockets at each other.

All this really helps give people a positive association with surprise. It creates team trust, which is important in the midst of constant change. And it’s a great source of creativity.

Q: What about you? You’re a ‘Surprisologist.’ This is your pledge: “A day without surprise is a day forgotten. A day forgotten is a day forever lost. Today, I will surprise someone. Today, I will surprise myself. I will make someone smile. I will create something.  I will be bold. I will have butterflies in my stomach. I will make mischief. I will remember today.” Do you like being surprised?

Luna: I used to hate being surprised. We moved to the United States (from post-Chernobyl, Ukraine) when I was six. We lived in a shelter for several months, and moved around a lot. So my coping mechanism to deal with all that surprise was to be become a control freak.

Then I launched a business with my sister, Surprise Industries, where we’d get people to sign up for an experience, but they wouldn’t know what it was going to be until they got there. I got really fascinated with surprise – the letting go of control, stepping into the unknown, practicing uncertainty. My background is in psychology, so I began to study it.

It’s really changed the quality of my life, from trying to prevent anything unexpected to, anytime anything unexpected happens, moving toward it, asking, ‘Can I learn anything from this,relationship?  Can I help someone?’

I may feel more secure if I plan everything, control everything. But I’ll feel more joyful, connected and alive if I embrace the things around me that I can’t control or predict.

We feel most comfortable when things are certain. But we feel most alive when things are not.

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