Well, that was unexpected.

How many times have you found yourself saying that?

Have you ever really thought about surprise? The different types and how they impact strategic thinking and execution?

Zvi Lanir's Model of Fundamental Surprise
Zvi Lanir’s Model of Fundamental Surprise. (GIF and Images Created by Yochanan Shaked for Dr. D. Leitner)

Because you are almost guaranteed to be surprised at some point in one of your creative processes.

Now, you might be asking yourself – Well, what do we mean when we say surprised?

Are we talking about the “oh, not a big deal, just something that I didn’t think of but can easily adjust and reset my mindset about?” Because I deal with these all the time.

Or are we talking earth-shattering, reality has shifted, I’m playing catch up, surprise? Which no one wants to consider though we have all lived through exactly that.

And my answer is, both. We really need to understand both – because sometimes one is a precursor to the other.

Now, there are a lot of ways to consider surprise. It can be based on expectations. You know “that was unexpected.” Or “That was different from what I expected.” Or “Wait, nothing happened?! I totally expected something.”

Or surprise can rest on Clauzewitz’ Surprise Maxims. The level of friction, timing, ease vs effectiveness, the ease of tactical vs operative or strategic surprise, Will, and the advantage of the offensive in surprise. [1]

In order to move things along we are going to skip here the rest of this rather long and boring literature review discussing surprise. Suffice it to say we would be discussing surprise from the perspective of the victim,[2] signals versus noise (though we will touch on this),[3] deception,[4] surprise on the battlefield,[5] and in the engagement.[6] Instead we will focus here on the nature of the surprise from the perspective provided by Zvi Lanir.

Lanir, in his research on surprise, proposes two predominant types of surprise, Situational and Fundamental. Lanir details both and explains the connections between them.[7]

According to Lanir, situational surprise is an event throws us for a moment but doesn’t significantly impact our work or relationship. It does not change our understanding of the world.

This type of surprise might be your spouse ordering pizza when you expect them to heat leftovers. Or a prototype test that demonstrates a minor flaw in design that, given a little bit of work, can be easily rectified. Or a team member leaving for another position. It might be the occasional pot-shot over a line of demarcation, juuust to keep you on your toes.

This kind of surprise does not require a major change of mindset or action. While it might throw us for a moment, we can realign and continue our progress.

That is, while the situation we find ourselves in is unexpected, it is not something that suggests a fault in our understanding of the world. While events don’t quite meet our beliefs or expectations and force us to make minor adjustments to our mindset, it is not, generally, life-altering.

And while these situational surprises are annoying, frustrating even, they aren’t necessarily a threat to our ability to engage our world.

Unless they signify the potential for a much bigger surprise on the horizon.

You see, situational surprise, in and of itself, may not be very harmful. But that doesn’t mean they can be ignored.

One person leaving a team is situational surprise. The first complaint against a team leader might be situational surprise. And while the possibility exists that there is no connection, that it might be coincidence, there is also the possibility that something bigger is taking place if these events are related. For example, an occasional mortar might be fired to annoy the troops, or it may be laying the groundwork – creating “noise” – to throw off the intelligence-gathering systems regarding an upcoming attack.

So, it might signal something much more impactful.

It might be a signal for an upcoming event that will rock your world – for good or for bad.

This is Fundamental Surprise. And it is world-altering.

Like an unexpected marriage proposal, the original iPhone announcement, the first man in space, or a getting wounded in the military and sudden disability kind of life-altering.

Now, not all situational surprises are precursors to fundamental surprise, far from it. And not all fundamental surprises have situational surprises that point to change.

So, we experience situational surprises all the time.

But we also learn from them. And from experience, training, and our instincts, to start recognizing patterns of behavior. For example, to identify when things are happening over and over, or that are somehow connected even though the events themselves are different.

And we learn how these signals might represent an upcoming change in our world. Like monkeys taking to the trees when one of them senses danger.

And good leadership tries to record, document, and teach others to recognize these signals and the relationships between them.

But what happens when we don’t recognize the signals? When intelligence-gathering fails, our analysis is faulty, or we don’t see or make the connections? Or worse, when we didn’t even know there was data available and there were no situational surprises signaling change?   

And then, boom.

Now we are playing the most desperate form of catch-up with reality. With our enemy, our competitor, our child…

We will probably go into denial, though the nature of the event may not give us space for denial.

And then. Then we will realize that we have to change our mindset. Our strategic thinking. Our operative organization. Our tactics. Even techno-tactical skills. And more.

And we are in for multiple minor explosions as we realign.

Remind me again how Covid-19 has impacted the workforce and people’s professions and lives…

And sometimes we feel like we have no time to think. Not operatively. Certainly not strategically. Even though events are demanding exactly that kind of adjustment.

And our previously unknown unknowns, even our known unknows, are recreating our world.


Because we have gaps in our tree of knowledge. We have our known knowns and our known unknowns. But then we also have our unknown knowns and unknown unknowns.

What do I mean?

Known knowns – things we know that we know about the present and future. They fit into their box. We understand how they connect with other leaves and branches in our world. And we know the leverage they have in our reality.

Known unknowns – things we know we don’t know (or don’t know enough) about. Places in our knowledge bank where the box is clearly missing information. The branch is a bit bare, or the leaves are older, and we don’t yet see new information sprouting.

Unknown knowns – things we didn’t know that we know. Pearl Harbor and the Yom Kippur War both come to mind here – the intelligence systems had data. They didn’t know or understand that data in an effective, timely, culturally relevant, manner. So this might be a new piece of data that we don’t know how to connect or which box to put it into. Or a signal that gets mislabeled. Or information that we were definitely privy to, but promptly forgot.

And unknown unknowns – the things we don’t even know that we don’t know. Gaps in our knowledge tree that, as far as we are concerned, don’t even exist. Leaves have fallen off the tree, but we assume they are still there, since they were present last time we looked. Boxes that we don’t even know exist that are part of the matching set.

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Surprise generally takes place somewhere between the unknown knowns and the unknown unknowns.

And these exist for everyone. For every unit. At every level. This is true for personal surprise. And it is true for organizational surprise. Military, business, government, etc.

And while we all try to gather as much intelligence as possible, there is still the possibility of surprise, because of failed internal communication, dissenting opinions, people who missed the message or misunderstood the message, assumptions, beliefs, perspectives, and more. And when it is a hierarchy, it may be because the decision makers are choosing to ignore strategic advice from those at lower levels in the institution…

So, the world is full of surprises – nothing new there.

After all, we cannot know everything. And our expectations of others are bound to miss the mark – sometimes more, sometimes less.

And yet, we often believe we live in a world of known knowns. We believe we know everything we need to know, and the world is as absolute as we think it to be. And the longer we live in that world, the longer we create and reinforce our mindset – individually and institutionally.

You see, once we believe something to be true, well it must be so.

We don’t want to get rained on, so we check the weather report before we leave. And, based on that intelligence, we hold a belief about the possibility of rain.

Does that mean you absolutely avoid rain, 100%, no questions asked?


So if you are skeptical, like me, then you will want more intelligence. So given your previous experience with weather reports, you decide to do a quick recon mission to check the weather outside right now. And based on that data you come to a conclusion and prepare accordingly. Or so you believe.

I mean, it’s not like you work where you live, right.

OK, so maybe Covid-19 surprised everyone. And maybe, just maybe, you do – at the moment – work from home or some hybrid thereof. In that case, I encourage you to stay in your PJs and come up with your own example.

But to carry this example to its conclusion…

Is there any guarantee that the weather in your morning geographic location is the same as a place an hour away, closer to the shore, and 200 meters geographically lower? No guarantees. So you might still be surprised if it rains. I mean, your intelligence and analysis systems told you that the likelihood – the chance – of rain is so slim.

So, it behooves us to understand how surprise happens, and realize the limitations of our ability to prepare for surprise.

Well let’s consider the different parts of surprise for a moment. There are many variable to leverage for surprise.

There is the time of the surprise. The place. The field or sphere of influence. The people involved. The environment. The nature of the act and intent. The target and its worth. The cognitive biases you, your institution, and your competition or enemy hold.

And this is just a short list of some variables that impact surprise.

So, can we really prepare for all the possible variables and scenarios?

Ultimately, the answer, at its core, is no.

What we can do is prepare how we react to potential surprises.

We do that through training. And strategic games. And Devil’s Advocate processes. A/B possibilities. What ifs, and If-Thens, and When-Thens, and more.

And then we may believe we’ve prepared for surprise.

But we cannot absolutely prepare for surprise. It just isn’t possible.

The nature of surprise is that it will happen at some point. And we cannot know when or where it will take place.  

We will still have to adapt our prepared scenarios and thought processes to reality.

But we can choose how we respond to surprise. We train so that, when surprise happens we have a selection of possible responses that will mitigate that surprise.

We can set up systems about how we share information so that surprise is mitigated when it does happen. We can delineate doctrinal expectations in response to the chaos and disorder we might expect when surprised.

How much we and our teams wallow in denial depends on our doctrine, training, and the culture we establish concerning risk and chance.

And that is a whole different discussion.

  [1] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, Ed. and trans. by Sir Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 198-200.

[2] Ephraim Kam, Surprise Attack: A Victim’s Perspective. (Cambridge, MASS: Harvard University Press, 2004).

[3] Betts, Richard K. “Analysis, War, and Decision: Why Intelligence Failures Are Inevitable.” World Politics 31, no. 1 (1978): 61–89.

[4] Michael I. Handel. “Intelligence and deception,” Journal of Strategic Studies, (1982), 5:1, 122-154.

[5] US Department of Defense, Field Manual 3-0, Operations (Washington, D.C.: HQs, Department of the Army, June 2001), 8-8.

[6] Robert R Leonhard , Fighting by Minutes, Time and the Art of War (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1994).

[7] Zvi Lanir, Fundamental Surprise. (Ramat Aviv, Israel: Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University, 1984).


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