7.1.1 Creating Surprise

The five keys to creating surprise using our chaotic environment.

Art of War Quote: 

"You fight with momentum.
There are only a few types of surprises and direct actions."

Sun Tzu's The Art of War 5:2:20-21


"Apprehension, uncertainty, waiting, expectation, fear of surprise, do a patient more harm than any exertion." Florence Nightingale

General Principle: 

Surprise requires chaos, expectations, and an unambiguous, intentional action.


Though competition is inherently chaotic, we still expect it to make sense. We are wired to find patterns even in meaningless noise. Despite the overwhelming complexity of competitive environments, we still cling to our expectations of order. Admitting that we cannot understand a situation creates cognitive dissonance, especially since we have been trained in linear thinking rather the than adaptive methods of Sun Tzu's strategy. We cling to our expectation. We are surprised when situations fail to develop according to those expectations. The reality of chaos affects us emotionally on a subconscious level. The unrecognized chaos makes us feel tense, frustrated, and even fearful.


Our reaction to chaos makes surprise possible. When we use surprise, we take advantage of the inherent chaos of the situation. Since people are looking for patterns, they shift their focus to us. As the author of a surprise, we are different from everyone else in the situation. We alone are assumed to be in control of the event, and, by proxy, of the situation. This changes the expectations of everyone with whom we deal. They grant us power over a situation that everyone else sees as outside of their control. Everyone gauges their reactions based upon that perception of power.

Key Methods: 

We create surprise using the following five keys.

  1. We leverage people's sense of expectations in a chaotic situation. Chaos is a necessary ingredient to creating surprise. Competition is chaos, but we fool ourselves into thinking it is controlled. Chaos creates a secret unease within us. Despite the rising feeling of uncertainty created by competition, expectations about the future are also necessary to create surprise. We can only be surprised if we think we know what is happening and how events should unfold. This means that the chaos cannot be so great that all expectations get thrown out the window. An action must have expectations to work against for it to be surprising (7.1.3 Standards and Innovation).
  2. We must use a set-up action that seems to violate expectations while secretly satisfying them. We need to take an action that violates apparent expectations but which really satisfies those who are expecting a surprise. In competitive situations, we only pretend to know what to expect. Deep down, we know they are chaotic. The set-up satisfies our secret expectation of the unexpected. However, it creates a deeper tension, as opponents try to respond to the set-up action correctly (2.0 Developing Perspective).
  3. We must then use a follow-up action to create the surprise that gives us momentum . The set-up is the unexpected for which others are prepared. It is the follow-up that creates surprise and from it, momentum. The unexpected puts others off-balance, but the surprise pushes them over. When we witness an event that violates our expectations, we start to worry about what we are missing. If the set-up was an accident, it has no meaning. We don't have to worry about it. The follow-up action proves that the set-up was intentional. The follow-up demonstrates our control over the situation, giving us the desired momentum (3.6 Leveraging Subjectivity).
  4. Both set-up and its follow-up must be significant enough to force attention. If either action is minor, we will either overlook it or simply take the action in stride, without reassessing the situation. However, if the action is significant, we react differently. We cannot take it in stride because of its impact on our perceptions of the situation. We are forced to reassess the situation as a whole. Our new perception of the situation centers around the surprising event (2.3.1 Action and Reaction).
  5. Both set-up and its follow-up must appear suddenly out of secrecy. This is a matter of good timing. Under the subtle tensions of a secretly chaotic situation, our first reaction is to fit all actions within our expected narrative. If the action can be interpreted as something expected, it will be interpreted as something expected, no matter how mistakenly. This can actually help us in early stages of preparing a surprise because it enables us to disguise the "set-up" as something familiar. If we use the action too soon or too late, it will lose most of its impact (7.4 Competitive Timing).  


We can illustrate these ideas by using the way that a magic trick is constructed. 

  1. We leverage people's sense of expectations about a chaotic situation. The first part of a magic trick is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. However, underlying the Pledge of ordinariness is the sense of something coming, a hidden secret, the beginning of tension. 
  2. We must use a set-up action that seems to violate expectations while secretly satisfying them. The second part of a magic trick is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. However, while the Turn seems extraordinary, it is really expected because people are watching a magic act.
  3. We must then use a follow-up action to create the surprise that gives us momentum. This is the third part, called the Prestige. Making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. The Turn was expected, almost promised by the Pledge. It is the Prestige that finalizes the surprise, making us realize that the Turn was itself another Pledge.
  4. Both set-up and the follow-up must be significant enough to force attention. Neither the Turn nor Prestige can be subtle. They must command our attention. They force us to figure out what is really going on. Together, they reinforce our attention. At first we were looking for a secret, but before we could resolve that quest, we are confronted with another. We won't find the secret, because we know we are looking in the wrong place.
  5. Both the set-up and the follow-up must appear suddenly out of secrecy. Both the Turn and Prestige must happen suddenly, ideally when we aren't expecting it. Since we are expecting something from the Pledge, but the Turn relieves those expectations only to be confronted with the Prestige, this sudden revelation that causes us to recognize control.