I just had to use a cat photo. Credit: Stefano Mortallaro

Summary

“Expect the unexpected” is a phrase that implies that we should at all times be on our toes to deal with things that are unplanned and that we had no way to be aware of beforehand. It’s an excellent maxim and one we try to adhere to at &share. Things such as a natural disaster, users hating the colour white and other, random and unexpected events should be something we consider and plan for.

In the context of an organisation there are, however, many things that can come as a surprise that, if considered and communicated properly, should not have been. The Law of Minimal Surprises is entirely concerned with the knowable and things that can be planned for. But you’d be amazed how easy it is to break the law.

The Law

The Law of Minimal Surprise is something based on a series of observations during my time at my previous workplace and it states that:

“All things that could be surprising to others should not be; keep the number of surprises to a minimum”.

The law is close in idea to, but not directly descended from, the Principle of Least Astonishment and/or The Rule of Least Surprise from the realms of User Interface design and Cognitive Economics.

There’s psychological backing for the benefits of such a law: “cognitive dissonance” is essentially the time our brains spend dealing with a new or unfamiliar concept. Each surprise that we experience requires us to reassess it in the context of what we know, replan our goals for the future and, finally, determine the changes and new steps we must take to achieve these goals.

Pleasant surprises, by the way, are not covered by the law, but you may still wish to think ahead before proposing to a potential partner 2 weeks into a relationship.

The broader aims of the law are:

  • Being honest to one’s self and others
  • Encouraging thoughtful and effective communication
  • Systemic thinking and decision making
  • Engagement
  • Patience

Honesty

Honesty, to one’s self and others, is crucial to adhering to the Law. Without being honest you are unlikely to communicate things that prevent surprise. This requires us to be always thinking about our own decision and actions and being honest to ourselves about what they mean and the consequences for others. In turn we must apply the same honesty in our interactions with others.

Communication

Honesty is all well and good but communicating our honest thoughts in thoughtful fashion is an important part of the law. Equally important is ensuring we communicate the correct message; communicating an incorrect message will result in surprises at a later stage.

If we were simply to attach a loudspeaker to our heads things might be a little too honest; but, worse, they would be communicated in perhaps the worst way possible: how we ourselves think. A common issue in communicating effectively is assuming that the person we are talking to also thinks in the same way. I’m probably making that mistake with at least half my audience right now.

Systemic thinking

Decisions and actions ripple across organisations, impacting in unanticipated and far-reaching ways. An apparently-small decision made by a team could have a wider impact across the entire organisation. Such decision making is exemplified by the “not my job” mentality.

Systemic thinking enables us to consider events beyond our own “sphere of decision making” and, ideally, work out who else will be affected by our decision. At the very least, we might be able to decide who we communicate with next in order to reduce the surprise transmitted across the organisation.

Engagement

According to Wikipedia, someone who is engaged is one “who is fully involved in, and enthusiastic about their work, and thus will act in a way that furthers their organization's interests”.

We want people to be fully engaged in whatever direction the organisation is trying to head along in. Managing programmers has been described as being like "herding cats"; but with a herd of fully engaged cats we don't need to herd, magically our cats will all want to head in the right direction.

The Law plays into this because surprise at a decision potentially means that the surprised person was not aware of something that was (hopefully) furthering the organisation’s interests. By minimising the amount of surprise we ensure that everyone in our organisation is fully involved and, in turn, engaged.

Patience

Tied closely to communication is patience. Being impatient will result in matters being rushed; in your haste you will fail to contemplate fully the above aims, resulting in surprise. In our haste we often neglect key aspects, assuming that others operate in the same fashion we do. Such assumptions will cause damage in your relations and dealings with others, and this will take longer to repair than you think. If you familiar with Software Development, this is effectively the same as ‘technical debt’ - easy to accumulate quickly but, over time, hard to pay off.

Final thoughts

The Law as a metric

Interested in reducing surprise? Well, first, you could attempt to measure and track surprise. It could be as simple as a series of post-it notes with a count of the number of surprises encountered by your group, team or organisation. If you’re following an Agile software development methodology, you could integrate a review of the surprise count during a Retrospective. It might be that you can tie identified potential improvements to a drop in surprise.

The inverse of the Law

“Surprise is acceptable when one is surprised and, in turn, all others are equally surprised”.

By this we mean that we should expect the unexpected; but if the unexpected appears, we would expect the communicator of the surprise to be as surprised as we ourselves are.

In simpler terms: it's fine if you're all stood there with your mouths open.

The Law & change

As mentioned above, something that is surprising generally will involve some sort of change coming along. But not all change is surprising; in fact, the Law of Minimal Surprise is all about ensuring that change is not surprising. Unfortunately there will always be types for whom the expression "there are none so deaf as those who do not hear" is applicable; The Law of Minimal Surprise is not meant to be an excuse to avoid change; change should be embraced.

"Good surprises" (aka 'empathy')

Surprisingly, a lot of surprises that we might think are good surprises may not actually be so. If you've been a receiver of new socks at Christmas, then you're familiar with this. You need have empathy for others in order to properly and appropriately judge whether a surprise is truly good or not. If you're not sure; identify someone who can do this for you and get their advice/approval (this works for teams and for romantic partners; just a hint, gentlemen).