Surprise analyzes high-impact events that seem too incredible, or are considered too unlikely, to happen; yet many do e.g. September 11th or the recent Financial Crisis.

Considering the extreme impacts of a surprise, for instance, the potential break-up of the United States, rejection of new technology as harmful to society or the coming of Peak Oil far earlier than expected can lead to the discovery of new opportunities and risks and the establishment of simple early warning systems of their potential arrival.

The object of the exercise is not to predict a surprise but to learning to strengthen an organization's ability to withstand or exploit similar shocks. Often, simple strategic and tactical changes made to the organization's contingency plans deliver sufficient spin-off benefit to make this analysis worthwhile. For instance, identifying that oil supplies may peak early can help organizations reduce their needs and diversify sources.

Uses of the method

  • Innovation
  • Threat assessment
  • Scenario planning
  • Contingency planning
  • Modeling


  • Help individuals and teams use extreme thinking to think the unthinkable about the world they inhabit.
  • Learn lessons in how to adapt to be more resilient to future shock.
  • Creative disruption through innovation.
  • Reduces potential blind-spots.
  • Spots potential discontinuities early.
  • Questions trend exploration techniques.


  • May create a perception of questionable value among stakeholders
  • Not a precise science more an art form today
  • Limited monitoring available
  • Requires technology for effective use

Steps to complete
Wild Cards can be found through brainstorming and/or systematic analysis of others ideas using this approach. A particularly good method is the Snowball method available here under Think | Discover.

  • Identify which surprises can happen that can affect the organization in extreme circumstances.
  • Determine the most important potential Wild-cards that can impact the organization from this list.
  • Classify the surprises
  • Type I: low probability, high impact, high credibility
  • Type II: high probability, high impact, low credibility
  • Type III: high probability, high impact, disputed credibility
  • Type IV: high probability, high impact, high credibility
  • Elephant in the room: happening now, disputed impact, disputed credibility
  • Monitor the most important for signals of growing strength.
  • Determine contingency or avoidance plans that can be put in place.
  • Look for universally accepted paradigms that could break. For instance: the United States/Euro zone fragments; double-dip recession, machines take over, five day working weeks are a thing of the past.
  • Capture critical uncertainties from the underlying assumptions you have made. Both these and the predetermined elements will be key to creating scenarios and examining potential future paradigm shifts.
  • Capture unique insight into new ways of seeing that can be utilized by the organization.
  • State alternative hypotheses drawn with different assumptions and judgments.
  • Consider what factors would likely change your mind through receipt of new information.
  • Determine which factors could surprise and alter your judgment and the direction of the outcome.
  • What conclusions can we draw from the exercise(s)?
    • How might the future be different?
    • How does A affect B?
    • What is likely to remain the same or change significantly?
    • What are the likely outcomes?
    • What and who will likely shape our future?
    • Where could we be most affected by change?
    • What might we do about it?
    • What don't we know that we need to know?
    • What should we do now, today?
    • Why do we care?
    • When should we aim to meet on this?
  • Surprise analysis typically can be used to define extreme scenarios. Consider creating a set of scenarios from your analysis.

This method and your response can be shared with other members or kept private using the 'Privacy' field and through the 'Tag', 'Report' and 'Forum' functionalities. Use 'Tag' and/or 'Report' to aggregate your analyzes, or add a 'Forum' to ask others where they agree/disagree and encourage them to make their own analysis from their unique vantage point.

Click the 'Invite tab to send invitations to other members or non-members (colleagues, external experts etc.) to ask for their input. You can whether or not you want anonymous responses.  These can be viewed and exported within the Responses tab.

Further reference

Contact us
Even with all the advice and tools we have provided here starting a foresight project from scratch can be a daunting prospect to a beginner. Let us know if you need help with this method or want a group facilitation exercise or full project or program carrying out by us. We promise to leave behind more internal knowledgeable people who can expand your initiative for better organizational performance.

Contact us today for a free discussion on your needs.

Are there other enhancements or new methods you would like to see here? Let us know and we will do our best to respond with a solution quickly.

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