The Value of Surprise in Observation

I was reading a back issue of Better Software magazine recently and came across Lee Copeland’s article about surprise and observation. In his article he makes the case for the value of surprise and how we should not treat it as a dreaded result (which he admitted to doing at times as a manager). My favorite quote from the article is his statement:

“When we are surprised, it may be that we have simply been oblivious to events in our world.”

I found that to be a profound statement. Do we value surprise in our lives, including the types of surprises that come at us at times that make us feel uncomfortable? As Lee points out (and I have heard Scott Hanselman share in an excellent talk), it is vital that we ignore lots of information that we are faced with on a daily basis. Most of it is irrelevant, not worth even passing attention, and even valuable information exists in such a quantity that we have to ignore some of it. What we should not do, however, is ignore what surprises can teach us about what we have been ignoring. Lee shares some Weinberg wisdom (Jerry Weinberg that is) about avoiding the maintenance of an “oblivious culture” that willfully chooses to avoid observation about the world (and its people and processes) or ignores the information that does not match what is believed to be true. In other words, they are failing to capitalize on the value that the surprise could have revealed if it had not been ignored and tossed away.

So the next time you are surprised by something, at work, home or somewhere else consider using it as an opportunity to reflect on what you might be ignoring and what that surprise could help you learn. Some questions I came up with that could help with this (in software testing and elsewhere) are:

Ask yourself what is happening?
What does it mean?
Is it important? Why?

So next time, don’t just enjoy (or fear) the surprise you are faced with, but learn from it too.

122 thoughts on “The Value of Surprise in Observation”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *