Surprises are not always a bad thing — but in the workplace, they can be problematic. Surprises can quickly derail your company plans and disrupt employee stability. To prepare for the unforeseen, here are some actions to take in advance.
Complete a thorough risk assessment
Even the best-run companies are vulnerable to surprises from within and without. To pinpoint your weak points, start by asking a series of “What if…” questions. For example: what if a key executive suddenly left the company, how would we compensate for the loss? What if our profits fell this quarter, how would we make up the shortfall? What if we suffered a data breach, how would we patch the situation for minimal damage? The takeaway from this exercise is to come up with contingency plans before you need them.
Have access to a pool of outstanding talent
Research from RAND found that being able to tap into a network of professionals with deep experience was the best policy for dealing with surprises. Experienced people can draw on their strengths to handle an immediate or unfolding surprise, just as an elite athlete draws on “muscle memory” to adapt to changes on the playing field. In practical terms, companies should attract and retain experienced team members—or know where they can find a “pinch hitter” if necessary.
Stay on top of what’s going on in your company and beyond
Intelligence gathering is a fruitful part of surprise management. Keeping in touch regularly with your managers and employees gives you an up-to-date picture of how things really are. If feasible, upper management should walk around their company—or do the digital equivalent—ask questions, listen, and encourage frankness. Reach out to your suppliers to hear what’s going on in your industry and get feedback from your customers also. Being well-informed can give you both a granular and satellite view—and advance warning of a coming surprise.
Prepare communication scripts in advance
Scripts can be written with both general wording that would be appropriate for any situation, as well as blank spaces to be filled with the specifics of the unfolding surprise. Your communication strategy should have scripts for text, email, video, or any other channels that your company uses, as well as a chain of command for issuing them. Being direct and honest in your communications, especially when you have to share unpleasant or negative news, goes a long way to retaining the support of your workers, customers and suppliers.
Turn a negative surprise into a positive outcome
Despite your best efforts, you can still be caught off guard, but don’t panic—surprises can also be learning opportunities that pay off down the road. For example, if a newly introduced product yielded disappointing results, have your team use the failure to recalibrate. Maybe the experience means that your team should be more creative or that your market research methods need to be adjusted. Challenging your team to make the surprise failure work to your company’s benefit can be a powerful motivator.
The best time to prepare for surprises is before they hit. Taking the time now to think through your responses to a surprise scenario can help you come out ahead later.
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