Unhappily shocked by Sputnik's unexpected 1957 success, President Eisenhower quickly pushed the Pentagon to establish the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Its ostensible mission: "to prevent technological surprise to the U.S. military, and to create surprises of its own."
Anticipating and enabling "technological surprise" has become even more challenging, DARPA director Arati Prabhakar recently told an MIT audience, because more people in more places have more access to more technology that ever before. Surprises can come from anywhere. In an era of greater global trade, knowledge transfer and transparency, Prabhakar unsurprisingly reports DARPA's core value proposition demands disproportionately greater imagination and ingenuity. Predictability breeds complacency. Predictability is DARPA's cultural, technical and organizational enemy.
The more Prabhakar talked, the clearer it became that DARPA's intimate historical relationship with surprise offered a powerful conceptual model for serious innovators worldwide. What role should surprise play in defining one's innovation brand in the minds of customers and competitors? To surprise or not to surprise? That is the innovation question. (This question from a marketing perspective was recently explored on this site.)
For Apple, the iPhone and iPad were unquestionably strategic surprises explicitly intended to disrupt established industries and disorient entrenched competitors. Steve Jobs, who had always sought to surround his company in auras of mystery and secrecy, was a master of injecting the unexpected into the zeitgeist. Indeed, Apple assiduously cultivated "expect the [delightfully] unexpected" as part of its innovation brand.
While seen neither as flashy nor as glamorous as Apple's offering, Amazon's Kindle and Fire platforms similarly signaled strategic surprise. Jeff Bezos transformed perceptions surrounding Amazon as a global retailer by making clear they wanted to be a global innovation ecosystem as well. Amazon had made itself accessibly and invitingly unpredictable.
After initially dismissing tablets as inferior to laptops, Microsoft surprised a number of its partners and developers by introducing Surface. A defensive surprise, to be sure, but one acknowledging Microsoft's competitive environment had completely changed.
But the greatest determinant of effective innovative surprise is not technical capability — it's expectations.
Surprise is about expectations. Successful surprises subvert, destroy and/or exceed expectations. The great innovation tension in business is appropriately managing expectations. With apologies to Clay Christensen, this other "innovator's dilemma" asks, "Is it better to be 'predictably surprising' or 'surprisingly predictable'?" That is, do customers and clients prefer the comforts of predictable improvements and enhancements that fall squarely within educated expectations? Or would they rather the thrill and novelty of innovations that challenge and intrigue them in unexpected ways?
If you're an Apple or a Samsung or an Amazon, is your brand better off building expectations around "no surprises" innovations that happily soak your customers in the warm bath of familiarity? Or do you gain greater brand equity by creatively disrupting the very expectations they're predisposed to bring to your products and services?
The simple thought-experiment and test I advise innovators to explore is substituting the phrase "pleasant surprise" for "innovation" whenever they discuss new offerings and upgrades. There's a world of UX difference between a significant innovation and a significant pleasant surprise. In fact, as many innovators discover to their sorrow, many of their most innovative features and functions are frequently regarded as unpleasant surprises.
How intimately do your designers and marketers link and measure the value of an innovation to the pleasure of its surprise? The great paradox, of course, is that the more people expect surprises, the less surprising those surprises are.
And surprise, like any other differentiator, can quickly hit diminishing returns. But, as DARPA's successful history as a surprise-based innovator suggests, understanding the differences and distinctions between "proactive" surprise and "reactive" surprise can pay huge dividends. What's surprising is how few innovators appreciate that.