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From Surprise to Breakthrough - ‘Leapfrogging’ Your Way to Success

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: “Want Innovation? Don’t Fight Surprises, Find Them,” by Soren Kaplan is the author of "Leapfrogging: Harness the Power of Surprise for Business Breakthroughs."

Leapfrogging, By Soren Kaplan
Leapfrogging, By Soren Kaplan

Just about every company wants innovation. And not just any innovation – breakthroughs that actually “change the game.”

At the same time, businesses hate uncertainty.

It makes sense.

Unpredictable events that catch us off guard pose threats to our strategies and plans. No wonder every management book on Amazon with the word “surprise” in its title is about how to avoid or prevent the phenomenon from occurring.

But here’s the problem.

Creating disruptive, game changing innovation requires leaders to live with uncertainty, embrace ambiguity, and respond to both good and bad surprises along the way.

Research on entrepreneurship and the “back stories” from some of the world’s most innovative small and large companies provide a counterintuitive picture of what it takes to create breakthroughs.

Game changers – whether products, services, or new business models – don’t necessarily result from big visions, carefully crafted strategies, or meticulous plans. “Breaking-through” in whatever we’re doing isn’t formulaic. It requires fast learning and iteration. And often the most important success factor lies in how companies respond to the inevitable positive and negative surprises they experience during the process.

During OpenTable’s start-up days, for example, the online restaurant reservation service experienced a big set-back. Danny Meyer, the famous New York restaurateur, told OpenTable’s CEO, “Look, I don’t need more business. We’re full every night.” Meyer was the most prestigious customer in one of the most important markets, and he didn’t want the service. This negative surprise prompted a big shift for OpenTable– in addition to restaurant reservations, the company created an “electronic reservation book” to deliver detailed data to restaurants about the diners sitting at their tables – essentially CRM for restaurants. OpenTable flipped a negative into a positive to become the leader in the market.

Sometimes big surprises come in small doses and need interpretation to reveal new opportunities.

In the mid 1990’s, Four Seasons needed to get on the internet, a risky endeavor for luxury brands at the time since the net was all about discounts. With a focus on the upscale business traveler, Four Seasons launched a website loaded with high quality photos and an 800 number to a special customer service line. The brand stayed true to its values by focusing on elegance and simplicity. No clunky online reservations tools using early technology or bargain basement discounts were part of the equation.

Within a few months, Four Seasons executives learned that customers were using the site in unanticipated ways – not by finding a single hotel and making a reservation but by spending a surprising amount of time surfing images of its most luxurious properties. Four Seasons’ reservations group also reported that large numbers of guests were calling in to discuss vacation options, something that hadn’t happened before.

About the same time, the first-ever Wall Street analyst report comparing hotel websites was issued and Four Seasons ranked #1. The reason why? “Spending time on the Four Seasons website makes us feel like we are already on vacation,” said the report – somewhat of a shock to a brand focused on the business traveler. These little surprises confirmed a big opportunity that helped inspire leadership to expand globally as Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.

Business culture reinforces the view that uncertainty – and especially surprises – should be avoided at all costs. Since we can’t run our businesses hoping for good luck, companies take a blanket approach to uncertainty, assuming that anything that happens outside of “the plan” is bad.

Charting new territory involves using uncertainty as a tool to discover direction. The real missing ingredient for business breakthroughs lies in how we uncover, interpret and respond to the single most predictable aspect of real innovation – the inevitable surprises that will come our way.

Soren Kaplan is the author of Leapfrogging and a Managing Principal at InnovationPoint LLC where he works with Cisco, Colgate, Disney, Medtronic, Visa, and others. He led the internal strategy group at HP and is an Adjunct Professor within the Imagineering Academy at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands. To learn more or contact Soren, visit www.leapfrogging.com.

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks