Use the "Surprise Factor" for Viral Innovation

Use the "Surprise Factor" for Viral InnovationInfuse the unexpected into everything you do for customers — and deliver a continuous stream of positive surprises.

When I ask business leaders, students, or friends to think back on their favorite experiences with what they consider truly breakthrough new products or services, many can’t help but smile.  The range of things I’ve heard when I’ve asked the question is immense:  iPads, Disneyland, Diaper Genies, Facebook, snowboards, rollerblades, Zappos, the Swiffer, Etch A Sketch, Crest White Strips, the Amazon Kindle, Skype, the University of Phoenix, MTV, eBay, Segway scooters, Harry Potter books, and the list goes on.

There is a reason for their Cheshire Cat grins. They’re reliving the pleasure of being surprised.  Not the kind of surprise when our older brother jumps out from behind a door and scares the crap out of us. It’s the opposite kind of surprise – the kind that signals delight, appreciation and intrigue.  When we experience a positive surprise, it compels us to do three things:

  1. Want to experience more of it
  2. Learn about how or why it works the way it does
  3. Share it, so we can take a small amount of credit for others’ own smiles of surprise.

When things give us a positive jolt of surprise, we embrace and share them.  It’s not just about recommending a new product.  It’s also about what makes things go viral.

It turns out that there is a physiological basis for these types of positive responses. Our brains are built to like the “pleasingly unexpected.”  Two neuroscience researchers, Gregory Burns and Read Montague, discovered this fact in a pretty interesting way.

Burns and Montague convinced some unsuspecting research subjects to join them for a drink – in their lab.  Their subjects were first hooked up to an MRI machine to measure their brain’s “pleasure centers.”  This is the part of the brain that’s responsible for pleasurable feelings. It lights up like a slot machine when people take addictive drugs or anticipate receiving money.  Once Burns and Montague connected their subjects to the MRI device, they asked them to open wide, just like they might do at the dentist – though what came next wasn’t painful.

The participants hadn’t been told what was going to happen, so no one knew that a computer was about to squirt water or juice into their mouths!  Half of the people received water; the other half got juice.  To further segment their research subjects, half of the people in each of the water and juice groups received their drinks at regular, predictable intervals while the others were continually surprised through random, sporadic squirts.

Burns and Montague presumed that people’s brains would respond most positively to their preferred beverage.  But they found that it didn’t matter whether their subjects’ wanted water or juice.  Across the board, the brain’s pleasure centers were most activated in those who received unpredictable, random squirts, regardless of the beverage they were given.

These two researchers pinpointed the fundamental mechanism behind why we perceive breakthroughs as special: we’re wired to appreciate positive surprise.

Whether it’s iPads, Netflix, or Cirque du Soleil, most of us recognize breakthroughs when we see or experience them because our brains are set-up to appreciate the way they challenge assumptions while adding value to things we care about.

Want to innovate? When creating and testing your ideas, incorporate and measure the “surprise factor.” Ask yourself:

  • What unexpected benefits, features, or experiences would delight your customers?
  • To what degree does your product, service, or business model elicit positive surprise?
  • What do your customers say or convey as the most surprising elements of your solution?
  • What surprises you about your customers’ reactions?

Positive surprise…  It’s the source of radical innovation and viral customer delight.

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Fear of Failure is the Big Problem, not Failure ItselfSoren Kaplan is the author of Leapfrogging and a Managing Principal at InnovationPoint LLC where he advises start-ups and also consults to Cisco, Colgate, Disney, Medtronic, Visa, and others larger firms. He led the internal strategy group at HP and is an Adjunct Professor within the Imagineering Academy at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands. To learn about the book Leapfrogging or contact Soren visit

Soren Kaplan

Soren Kaplan is the author of two bestselling and award winning books, Leapfrogging and The Invisible Advantage. He is a former corporate executive, an affiliated professor at USC’s Center for Effective Organizations, and founder of InnovationPoint and upBOARD. For more information about Soren visit or




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