The Benefits of Being Unpredictable
Frederick Arthur Montague Browning (1896 – 1965) was known as ‘Boy’ Browning. He served in the British Army with distinction in the First World War. He was promoted to Adjutant at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. During the Sovereign’s Parade of 1926, he did something unexpected by the large audience who came to see the closely choreographed and well-rehearsed parade of cadets. At the end of the ceremony he rode his horse up the steps and into the Old College. No-one had ever done this before. It confounded, amazed and delighted the gathering. It became a tradition which endures to this day.
Boy Browning married the author Daphne du Maurier in 1932. He was the leader of the British Airborne forces at the battle of Arnhem in 1944 which he famously described as ‘a bridge too far.’ He was portrayed by Dirk Bogarde in the film with that name.
At the Sovereign’s Parade he did something unpredictable and daring; it paid off. In warfare, in business and in many other walks of life being predictable can be a weakness. Sometimes it pays to try something unforeseen by your opponents. Hannibal did something unexpected by the Romans when he took his army across the Alps. Nelson surprised the French with his line of attack at Trafalgar. On the other hand Napoleon’s tactics at Waterloo were exactly what Wellington expected after his battles in the Peninsula War. He later said, ‘They came on in the same old way and we defeated them in the same old way.’
Phil Romano is an entrepreneur who founded Romano’s Macaroni Grill in San Antonio, Texas. The restaurant was busy at weekends but there was very little traffic in the early part of the week. So he decided that one Monday or Tuesday every month all the food would be free but he did not announce which day. People constantly called to ask, ‘Is tonight the night?’ They found out when they arrived. Word spread and the business increased dramatically.
A study by four researchers at INSEAD found that being emotionally unpredictable could yield significant advantages in negotiations. They say that emotional inconsistency and unpredictability make recipients comply in negotiation and to concede more than express anger. This effect occurs because recipients feel less control.
In 2013 Beyoncé surprised her fans and the music industry by releasing a new album without warning, delivering 14 new songs and 17 videos as part of what she called her first “visual album.” The shock release generated a storm of media coverage. Reuters dubbed her “the queen of surprise releases.”
The general rule in business is to offer a consistent high-quality product to customers so that they know what to expect. It would be most unwise for a company making parachutes, ejector seats or defibrillators to suddenly do something capricious or random. However, if you are dealing with consumers it can occasionally pay to break the rule. It is a risky strategy and will not always succeed but as Burger King found when they launched their spoof ‘left-handed hamburger’ it can surprise and delight customers, catch competitors off-guard and garner great publicity and good will.
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Paul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation, and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader and editor of A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, published both published by Kogan-Page. Follow him @PaulSloane
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