There it was.

A word that stood out starkly against all the others around it.

It was an innocuous email less this one word that kept nagging me. As one of my fellow employees wrote to me in a recent email,

…I was surprised.

So there it was – SURPRISED – and it changed everything for me, as I realized this is rarely a good word to hear with your business.

“Surprise” Is Rarely Good For Your Business

To be sure, don’t confuse “surprise” with “delight”. Delight is a wonderful thing. I’ll spare you the obligatory Webster dictionary inserts but know this: the two concepts can be similar but importantly different in that delight is about the resulting pleasing effect, regardless of whether or not it was anticipated beforehand.

Now let’s take a quick look at when it might be good to introduce surprise into your business.


Whether it’s transparent pricing, clarity on scope or being up front about timeline expectations, your client should know of these changes as soon as you do. A surprise to your client is an indication of poor project management. The surprise you’ll more likely see is a resulting surprise firing from the client.


Your product design should be intuitive and feel natural for your users. Even a product they’ve never used or seen – if well designed – should be devoid of surprises. Think about when Microsoft rolled out Windows 8 and how many users were surprised at why things had changed with their beloved (?) Windows 7. Surprise – did not work in Microsoft’s favor.

Your Team

The team you’re leading is looking to you for direction and strategy and it’s your job to remove roadblocks so they can be the rockstars they are. Surprises, such as an expected bonus that never comes, or unplanned weekend work erode trust. Without trust your rockstars become rocks that don’t move in the same direction as you.

Your Boss

Your boss relies on you for proactive updates so s/he can make the right strategic decisions. Telling your boss your project is going to be late – when it’s too late – is a surprise your boss should never receive. Tell him/her early, before it’s an issue (hence when it’s still a risk), so the two of you can plan ahead.


You should never be surprised, which shouldn’t be a problem if you make sure those around you never are either.

BUT! Isn’t Surprise Also Good?

“But!” you might exclaim, “There are plenty of times when surprise is good.”

“Oh are there?” I ask?

Even when surprise seems positive, I question whether there was a better alternative.

Take the surprise of unexpectedly closing a big sale. That’s awesome, right? Sales are a good thing, correct? What’s the harm in an unexpected sale? Well…a few things.

Unexpected sales (not to be confused with low probability sales) are hard to predict. If your sales were frequently unexpected, how do you budget for cash flow? How do you allocate time and money to marketing if you never know which channels lead to conversions? Instead, think about how valuable to outside funders and inside team members predictive sales funnels are.

Unexpected sales are a results oriented approach, focusing on the end result instead of why it happened. What’s “results-oriented” mean? It’s a popular term with expected value experts. It’s like winning the lottery your first time playing, and then pouring your life savings into scratchers. Just because you “won” the first time you played doesn’t mean it’s the right play long-term.

Preventing Surprise

What’s the antidote to surprise?

Simple – communication.

Communication leads to information sharing amongst a team so no one is surprised when the results come. Communication leads to planning, so the outcome is expected before it happens. Communication leads to preparation so that when things do go awry – which they will – you’re prepared ahead of time to alter course.

Look to avoid surprise in your business and instead replace it with communication.