Rate of surprise is an indicator of uncertainty

How often we are surprised by new and unexpected information can give us a good sense of how much uncertainty there is in our work, our lives and our world in general. This sense of surprise is different from simply learning new things that fit within our worldview and don’t appear unexpected to us. For something to surprise us it has to be both new and unexpected. And how often we feel surprised, that is, how many times over a given length of time, gives us a sense of the rate of surprise. A high rate of surprise might suggest impending futureshock; the phenomenon of experiencing too much change in too short a period of time.

Why might we want an indicator of uncertainty? In most organisations, uncertainty is regarded as a bad thing. For the purposes of discussing this idea, ‘organisation’ means any group of people coordinating themselves to achieve a shared goal. A group of mates getting together for a game of football falls under this definition. If they experience too much uncertainty because they don’t know who is coming, where they’re meeting, who’s bringing the ball, etc., etc., then they’ll be unable to achieve the shared goal of playing a game of football. Continuing with this example, which applies equally to any means of organising and coordinating people, if all of those mates agree where they’re meeting, who’s bringing the ball, etc., but then some of those expectations don’t happen as planned, then there is surprise. Organising reduces uncertainty. Surprise indicates unexpected uncertainty.