EDITOR’S NOTE: The current temporary theme we are using only credits a single author. This article was written by Jeffrey E. Baker and Bob Bradford

Recent world events suggest that a new way of thinking about organizational surprise may help contextualize its effects. For example, the global COVID-19 pandemic surprised and stressed many organizations, whose various responses merit analysis and categorization.

Surprises, or unexpected, astonishing changes to the status quo, can knock organizations aback and such events are on the rise. Leaders and managers can’t afford to neglect them. Surprises come in many forms, including creeping developments, sudden events, or loss of meaning events. Organizations wrestle with surprise and its effects through sensemaking, crisis management, or dedicating resources to avoid surprises altogether.  Some scholars note its role in driving organizational change and its importance to learning.  

Recent world events suggest that a new way of thinking about organizational surprise may help contextualize its effects. For example, the global COVID-19 pandemic surprised and stressed many organizations, whose various responses merit analysis and categorization. We therefore developed a new typology to help leaders and managers better understand the effects of surprise, to allow them to use it to drive organizational change. We posit that organizations will react to surprises in four ways, and type them accordingly, depending on their responses. These types are: Survivor Seekers, Sleek Organizations, Dinosaurs, or Pinnacle Organizations. Categorization rests on these organizations’ fundamental beliefs about people’s behavior after a surprise, and how much the organizations may change their actions to adapt to a post-surprise environment. 

Following a brief description of our typology method, we will elaborate on the types of actions and characteristics expected of these four types of organizations. Finally, we will describe how each type of organization may respond to the surprise of COVID-19, specifically, and discuss some implications of the choices that leaders of each type of organization make.  In a follow-on article, we will apply this framework to the Department of Defense. 

Back to Normal:  The first two organization types believe life will return to a largely pre-surprise state. That is, that people’s actions and attitudes will return to “the way it was” before the surprising change to the status quo. Organizations with this assumption expect no real change to people’s behavior based on the surprise event. Two types of organizations hold this belief about the temporary nature of the surprise: survival seekers and sleek organizations. We differentiate them respectively by whether or not respond with a high or low level of action.

Survival Seekers have one goal: survive the shock. They hunker down and weather the storm. Their plan is to hold on until life returns to normal and then resume activities with no real changes to how they operate. They do not take advantage of, or even recognize, any efficiencies engineered to survive a surprise. They thus exhibit a low level of response to surprise.

Sleek Organizations share the goal of surviving the shock, but recognize the efficiencies gained in response to it as advantages. They learn from their reactions and change their behaviors accordingly. These organizations exhibit a high level of response to surprise. Their changes in organizational behavior may give them a competitive edge moving forward.

Life is Forever Changed:  Some organizations believe that surprises and shocks fundamentally change peoples’ behaviors. From this perspective, shocks to the environment alter how people view and interact with the world. People want and expect a new and better way of doing things. Again, two types of organizations hold this belief, and they are differentiated by whether or not they take a high level of action or a low level of action in response to surprise. We call the first type of organization dinosaurs and the second pinnacle organizations.

Dinosaurs recognize the change in the environment but either have a fundamental belief that their organizations were good before the surprise and will be good after it, or else they lack the resources (will, money, vision, etc.) required to change their organizations. These conditions result in little to no drastic change in such organizations. 

Pinnacle organizations see the world has changed and not only act to permanently incorporate efficiencies they gained during a surprise, but also seek new value streams and advantages throughout the aftershocks.

One can argue whether a global pandemic should surprise us; we argue that 2020’s COVID-19 definitely did: it significantly changed most organizations’ operating environments.   And though people knew a global pandemic was possible or even likely, no one expected it to happen when it did. Here are some ways the four types of organizations might respond to this global crisis – and others to come:

As with most typologies, we recognize that it is likely that organizations may fall more onto more of a sliding scale than into an absolute category when it comes to how their organization will manifest, post-pandemic.

Survival seekers will push to get back to a pre-COVID-19 business model as soon as possible. They will bring their workers back to the office/factory with little to no changes to the office layout, telework options, or staggered start times. They will not poll employees about teleworking preferences or analyze cost savings pocketed during COVID-19 operations. In short, they will miss opportunities for efficiency and change because they do not believe that the COVID-19 experience changed people’s behaviors or expectations.

Sleek organizations may change internally as they analyze cost savings gleaned from unused parking, travel funds, real estate, water, fuel, or electricity. They’ll do no external evaluation of customer requirements since they believe the world did not fundamentally change. They will have exploited temporary efficiencies, such as Zoom meetings, but will forgo greater opportunities for change by not incorporating new and proven cost-saving practices.

Dinosaur organizations recognize peoples’ behavior has fundamentally shifted in the post-COVID-19 era, but their unshakable belief in the soundness of their organization’s pre-COVID business model inclines them to believe it will remain sound after the crisis. Such organizations include manufacturers and some service industries, such as garbage collection or delivery services. They believe their organizations are already optimally organized to provide certain goods or services to customers.

Pinnacle organizations take great steps to position themselves for a new normal. They believe that the world has fundamentally changed, and that people no longer want or accept life as it was before a crisis such as COVID-19. They recognize that some people can be as efficient working from home and in the office and that costs — either way — are forever changed. These organizations plan strategically to meet their customers/stakeholders’ needs, and they align their organizations with the future they expect to see. One way such organizations evaluate their processes is to look for efficiencies and areas for innovation using Michael Porter’s value chain concept.

The value chain breaks down organizations’ strategically relevant areas into either support areas (such as infrastructure, human resource management, technology development, or procurement) and primary activities, such as inbound logistics, operations, outbound logistics, marketing and sales, and after-sales services), to find areas where these organizations can beat their competitors. Value chain analyses are not new, however, pinnacle organizations look at their value chain and ask themselves, ‘if people’s behavior has fundamentally changed, what are the implications for each segment of our chain? They believe that in a fundamentally changed, post-crisis world, such analyses will drive their organizations to choose new paths toward operating success. 

While the jury is still out on what the future holds and how COVID-19 may have changed people’s behaviors, organizations must start thinking about how they will position themselves for the post-pandemic operating environment. Private individuals are already thinking about life past COVID-19. As with most typologies, we recognize that it is likely that organizations may fall more onto more of a sliding scale than into an absolute category when it comes to how their organization will manifest, post-pandemic. We also recognize that different parts of organizations may fall into different categories. For instance, a soft drink manufacturer’s human resources section might exhibit pinnacle type features, while its manufacturing division might still resemble a dinosaur type.

The important question is for leaders and managers to ask themselves, ‘what type of organization are we, and if this is not the best type of organization for our industry in the post-crisis world, what do we need to do to change?’ If they don’t ask, they may find themselves surprised by extinction.

COL Jeffrey E. Baker is an Army Officer and instructor in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College.

Bob Bradford is a retired U.S. Army colonel and the Professor of Defense and Joint Processes in the U.S. Army War College’s Department of Command, Leadership, and Management.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

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2 Comments

  1. I very much appreciate your observations regarding surprise and organizational change. I’d like to offer a few based on 40+ years in uniform and out, public and private sector, including service in the then Director of Military Support (DOMS) on the Army Staff, 20 years at FEMA (including running response and recovery operations for the Agency), and a stint on the NSC staff.

    I recognize the brevity of the article precluded a deeper treatment of the subject, so consider my comments as thought extensions. They are obviously colored by my experience.

    It’s useful to distinguish between surprises that are amenable to preprogrammed routines and those that aren’t, since that weighs on the impetus for change. For example, I’d describe the preponderance of FEMA’s work as routinized response to predictable disasters. When it has encountered events outside it’s knowable space and conventions, it’s had some searing embarrassments. Unlike DOD, most of the “surprises” FEMA deals with are created by seasonal, non-adaptive, morally neutral natural catastrophes, rather than an actor with the motive to inflict and exploit painful surprises. That can obviously impact the need for and speed of change.

    I’d distinguish between surprises and shocks. Surprises are generally within the knowable space and conventions. Shocks break the framework the organization took for granted and present it with contingencies and novelty it never considered. Surprises make headlines, shocks make history.

    To your point about whether COVID was or wasn’t a surprise, one could argue it was a “predictable surprise.” Watkins and Bazerman (“Predictable surprises: the disasters you should have seen coming”) describe these occurring “despite prior awareness of all of the information necessary to anticipate the events and their consequences.” We prepare every year for hurricane season, although the likelihood and location of a major hurricane making landfall in the United States is not knowable until ~72 hours out. Health and Human Services and its operating divisions, particularly the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had the principal remit for pandemic preparedness. The surprise was not in the appearance of a novel virus, but rather the inharmonious response. Roberta Wohlstetter said: “The results, at Pearl Harbor, were sudden, concentrated, and dramatic. The failure, however, was cumulative, widespread, and rather drearily familiar.” Failings certainly weren’t exclusive to HHS/CDC, but underlying organizational pathologies (unclear responsibilities, internal jealousies, stockpile depletions, inertia, etc.) roared to the fore in COVID. They were evident in previous responses (Ebola, the Flint water crisis, etc.), but accountability for failures and required remedies were…elusive. The status quo was tolerable until it was intolerable. Here’s hoping they can now reach your pinnacle.

    Leaders and managers (elected and appointed officials) do indeed neglect potential surprises, or discount them. Henry Kissinger is reputed to have said after an intelligence community warning went unrecognized, “You warned me, but you didn’t convince me.” They are subject to all the biases that thwart change, particularly when the change doesn’t advance their agenda — e.g., the self-serving bias (the bad thing happened due to circumstances outside their control or because of what competing leaders and managers purported).

    When “survival seekers hunker down,” it often seems to manifest in one of two ways: sullen withdrawal, or hyperdrive. The organization and its leaders/managers are embarrassed and their status is in peril. Some tend to become defensive, resist or reject change (and help), and avoid engagement (including withholding information or imposing procedural hurdles). Others go into organizational hyperdrive — they overreact by putting a lot of people in motion and lighting a fire under leaders and managers, but motion does not mean progress and does not necessarily equate to consequential action or change.

    One of the characteristics I’ve seen in “sleek organizations” is, as you note, superior sense-making coupled with the crucial ability to know what administrative or procedural routines must be shed at once to reorient their organizational “rhythm” and energy to the new operational environment. It’s one thing to know; it’s another thing to hit “Go.” They seem to have the discernment to distinguish a potential all-hands-on-deck Varian disaster from a manageable disruption. (“Ne cras, ne cras”: “Not like yesterday.”) Organizations (and leaders and managers) that are comfortable dealing with uncertainty and risk are more likely to possess the “shedding” function and be able to roll with the punches.

    I fervently wish surprises or shocks changed people’s (and organizations’) longterm behavior. Were that the case, we’d make changes to insurability or eligibility for disaster relief for almost 40% of the U.S. population living in coastal counties, with a population density five times greater than the U.S. average, and subject to flooding, hurricanes, sea level rise, coastal erosion, and the like. Even if a (pinnacle) organization recognizes the advantage of change following a surprise or shock, it may not be within their control — it could be in the hands of investors, legislators, investigators or special interest groups. That is certainly the case with COVID, and may impact how organizations move through your “sliding scale”.

    The surprises and shocks I’ve experienced play havoc with organizational boundaries — FEMA, for example, was drawn into management of the nationwide vaccination program when HHS faltered. Stating the obvious, the motivation for change is stronger in organizations at the center of the storm (who have the most at stake and stand to gain or lose responsibilities and funding). In the aftermath of Katrina (before I was at FEMA) I recall being told by Hill staffers that DHS resistance to proposed legislative changes (the sweeping Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act) would determine the “size of the pill it would have to swallow.” Organizations on the periphery that expect to “return to normal” may find themselves caught in the struggle over reshuffling responsibilities. Their modest notions of change may be upended. They may not be interested in change, but change is interested in them.

    Your point about “value chains” was thought-provoking. In my experience with FEMA’s response and recovery operations, “operators” directly engaged in disaster operations (who of course felt they were the most strategically relevant area!) chaffed at what they viewed as organizational impediments (policies and procedures). That organizational tension was usually advantageous since it supported change but slowed hasty churning. When policies and procedures were outside the control of the organization (e.g., they were owned by a parent organization or cemented in legislation) they often became reasons to blame “the other” for the inability to implement change.

    One other (minor) point to consider is the impact and durability of the organization’s “strategic plan.” Strategic plans take months of struggle sessions to produce, reflect leader and manager’s agendas, contain an exhausting catalog of sub-component’s goals and objectives, and prompt ceaseless cheerleading and marketing to internal and external audiences. Was the “damn nice thing — the nearest run thing you ever saw” sufficiently discomforting to fundamentally alter or even jettison the vested (pre-surprise) plan?

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking article. It gave me a new set of eyes.

  2. We therefore developed a new typology to help leaders and managers better understand the effects of surprise, to allow them to use it to drive organizational change. Thanks for your post.

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