Cover: Surprise!


From CEOs to Navy SEALs: How a Select Group of Professionals Prepare for and Respond to the Unexpected

Published Aug 14, 2013

by Dave Baiocchi, D. Steven Fox


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Research Questions

  1. What strategies are common across all of the professions? Are there techniques and tools that everyone uses, regardless of their environment or required reaction time?
  2. Does the level of environmental chaos determine how various professions respond to surprise?
  3. Do the tactical professions take a uniformly different approach to responding to surprise than the strategic occupations?
  4. Does the type of surprise matter? Do professionals respond differently to known unknowns versus unknown unknowns?
  5. Is the appropriate response for surprises with positive implications different from that for negative surprises?
  6. Does routinely confronting negative surprises interfere with capitalizing on positive surprises when they occur?

This report relates what professionals believe creates surprise, how they respond to it, and how the effects of surprise can be mitigated. To understand how different professions respond to surprise, RAND researchers developed a framework that categorizes professionals' responses to surprise in terms of the time available to respond and the level of chaos in the environment, then conducted discussions with representatives from 13 different professions, including former ambassadors, chief executive officers, military personnel, and physicians. RAND observed that the interviewees all used common coping strategies, such as relying on past experience and trying to reduce the level of chaos in the environment. However, there were also important differences in the responses taken by different types of professionals: "strategists" (e.g., CEOs and foreign service officers) focused more on controlling anger and ego, and communicating and coordinating with others, while "tacticians" (e.g., medical practitioners and SWAT team members) — who typically have a shorter response time — focused more on controlling panic and buying time. The report concludes with recommendations on how practitioners can better prepare for and respond to surprise.

Key Findings

Certain Strategies Can Be Applied Universally

  • Experience is a key way to avoid surprises.
  • Reducing the number of variables also reduces the complexity and size of the solution.
  • A measured response preserves future options.
  • Teamwork is essential, even for professions perceived as relying on individual actors.

Different Groups Prepare for and Respond to the Unexpected in Different Ways

  • Professionals in the most-contrived environments, such as athletic fields or theatrical stages, can plan reactions for nearly any possible contingency.
  • Those in moderately chaotic environments like operating rooms rely partially on checklists and rules, but also employ some basic response frameworks.
  • In highly chaotic environments, such as behind enemy lines, planning against specific surprise events is almost impossible. Instead, practitioners exercise a general-purpose framework.

Available Response Time Plays a Role

  • Tacticians, who must generally react within seconds or minutes, often must first overcome fear and anxiety. A typical protocol is to control panic, buy time, then revert to fundamentals learned in training.
  • Strategists, who have days or weeks to react, generally face immediate feelings of anger and an impulse to overreact. A similar process for coping is employed: control emotions, take some initial enabling actions, quickly assemble key staffers, and disseminate a coherent longer-term response.

Surprises Generated by Humans Are Typically More Complex

  • When people are at the root of a surprise (as opposed to, say, the environment), the system becomes more complex and the potential outcomes become more unpredictable.
  • The biggest surprises often come from third-party actors, not direct adversaries.


  • Attract and retain the most experienced people.
  • Strengthen communications and coordination between co-workers
  • Develop mechanisms and tools to promote more-measured responses.
  • Instill the workforce with the mindset that surprises can be both opportunities and learning experiences.
  • Top-level strategists must have good communication with co-workers throughout the entire response effort.
  • When appropriate, reach beyond one's immediate network and seek outside expertise.
  • Keep an eye on third-party stakeholders.
  • Assess the level of chaos in one's work environment, then develop strategies accordingly.

The research described in this report was prepared for the National Reconnaissance Office. The research was conducted within the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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