Skip to main content
leadership lab

Former executive vice-president of Telus, educator, adviser and author of Be Different or Be Dead.

A twist in the story that surprises you. An unfiltered remark your friend makes that completely blindsides you. A sudden romantic affair revealed between one of your parents and their best friend that leaves you speechless. A tax increase that immediately increases your operating costs and reduces your profits. An aggressive move made by your closest competitor that jeopardizes your market position.

Something happens that is completely unexpected and that could never have been predicted. And it’s not a minor incremental event; it’s a big discontinuity.

It seems that disruption is becoming the new normal in our world these days.

In spite of the plethora of sophisticated planning, forecasting and prediction tools available to us, as well as the increased awareness we try to exercise in our personal life, we tend to face more things we don’t expect than things we do.

The challenge is to be able to deal with the unexpected in the best way possible.

Here are some things to consider:

New normal

Understand that the unexpected is now the new normal and accept it. If you don’t have the right frame, you have no chance of turning a surprise into a successful outcome.

You need to be leaning in the right direction to turn a potential negative into a positive.

Don’t be overconfident in predictions

Realize the limitations of forecasting tools and don’t rely too much on them. Treat them as part of your “this is what might happen” thinking – a possibility, and no more. If you give the results of forecasts too much credence, you are vulnerable to damaging surprises.

Spider senses

Develop your spider senses to be acutely aware of conditions that might spawn discontinuity; this is essential if a win is to be extracted from a hit.

If you’re not looking for a possible disruption, you will likely miss it when – not if – it occurs.


Try to be more nimble in the face of the unexpected. Can you dance? Can you change your cadence and rhythm to move differently when the beat of your life changes?

Generally, you don’t have a month to decide what action to take; get used to real-time responses that make use of the best information you have available to you.

Stay on your toes.


Tolerate the fact that you’ll always have blind spots. There’s no point trying to fight it; it’s a legitimate fact of life over which we have little or no control.

If we can accept that a massive shift in our lives will likely occur at some point, openness places us in a good position to create a positive outcome from it.

Intolerance of your blind spots is not practical.


Keep perspective about what’s happening. Is the unexpected event a big deal or not?

You need to be able to assess the importance of a disruption in the grand scheme of things in order to decide how much emotional energy you should be expending on it. Pouring your guts into an event with little or no import in your life doesn’t make any sense; it’s draining and counterproductive.

I use a simple 1-10 scale to assess how I should react to the unexpected. Anything over a 7 gets my attention; I treat it seriously and respond accordingly. Anything in the 5-to-6 range gets slight attention; less than 5 gets a nod of acknowledgment and nothing more.


Always have a Plan B just in case. If a disruption affects a plan you put into action, you should have thought through a contingency in the first place.

No plan or strategy ever turns out the way we originally thought it would, so have a backup plan.


Pause, take a deep breath and think before you act.

Knee-jerk responses are dangerous and typically lack long-term perspective; they play out in the here and now and can prejudice the future.

So think about the event that just played out, look for reasons why it occurred, postulate some courses of action you could take and then act on the one you believe is appropriate.

Pollyanna attitude

Lose the naivety; bad stuff happens. You’ll only be surprised if you have a Pollyanna attitude, believing that permanent continuity is possible.

A belief in predictability typically has its roots founded in the past, when the rate and degree of change – across social norms, technology, politics and markets – was much more modest than it is today.

Believe that anything is possible and that the role of the unexpected is to drive progress.


Be prepared or be done. If a storm is coming, gear up for the possibility it’ll be there for the long term. Have a survival kit and a storm shelter to protect you.

Develop your own plan for coping with disruption that incorporates some of the above considerations, as well as some of your own.

Pride of authorship has no place; what’s important is to have an approach that works for you and keeps you alive when stuff happens over your career and life.

Preparing for and dealing with disruptions should be part of every school curriculum, so people can learn early what they’ll need to get by in a world of unpredictability and change.

And it’s more than developing the ability to cope; it’s about taking the forces you didn’t ask for and using them to your advantage.

Don’t be a victim. Be prepared.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe