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  • Writer's pictureT.H. Kern

The Element of Surprise

Incidental Findings #2

by T.H. Kern

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The Element of Surprise
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Excerpt of a score for Karleinz Stockhausen, Helikopter-Streichquartett (1995)

Twenty years ago, when I was just a wee lad in the market analytics business, I did a qualitative study for a global pharma company that turned up an unexpected finding. Nothing on par with an undiscovered chemical element, mind you—more like What motivates prescribers in this space are Factors X, J, and C.

Our client’s prior research, I was to find out, had been emphatic in stating that only factors X and C (and not J) were driving decisions in the space. My Boss, an intelligent and very well-credentialed Wharton MBA, was shocked to see me suggest otherwise. To me, the inclusion of Factor J added some depth to the buying process, a kind of footnote or clarification. Not cause for armed revolt in the streets.

Boss was, to put it mildly, not happy. “[This company] has done dozens of studies on this disease state, several of them with us! And your report is telling them they have missed this all along?” Boss fluttered the pages of the topline in my face to underscore this point. Not being wise enough to surrender right away, I said, hesitantly, “Well, if you listen to the interviews…”

“Out,” said Boss, jabbing a finger to point me back to my windowless office. “I’ll let you know when I have figured out what to do about this…mess.”

To a child, the notion of a “surprise” is often laced with hints of something magical or fantastic. “If you do all of your chores without being asked,” says the grown-up in a singsongy tone, “there might be a surprise for you.” That is, a treat. Outside of The Addams Family, no child expects her ‘surprise’ to be a Gorgon or a Yeti.

In business, an opposing view prevails, and “surprise” is typically a word to strike icy terror in the hearts of all. A “surprise” is something that happens to the novice, the unprepared, or the merely unfortunate. There may be connotations of How did you let this happen? Apart from a surge of mirth after an upside print in company earnings, “surprise” is the last thing you want to appear on your boss’s face.

Humans are drawn to stability, which is another word for boredom. It’s not that we dislike novelty, but we do crave certainty and comfort wherever we can get it. If humanity were a business, its corporate motto would be Keep surprises to a minimum. But taking the “safest route” often means overlooking a lot of potentially important information.

It isn’t unwelcome to make discoveries in market research. After all, the business objectives for market research often include directives to “generate new insight into our customers.”

But best for it not to be something that happens by accident. On many teams, surprises need to be “planned” for in advance or at least “re-framed” prior to being shared with a larger group.

One effect of all this “insights management” at client companies is greater predictability, which tends to siphon the human out of things. This in turn can lead to stagnation, which is certainly not the goal of all our efforts. But it could be a side effect. Recurring market research reports (e.g., those for an ATU) can become so routine, with data carefully buffed not to surprise or offend, that readers may find nothing worth remembering in them.

Removing all potential for surprise may create a greater sense of “safety,” but that in turn can become a recipe for people to switch into “sleep” mode—undesirable for a business no matter how you slice it. A partial remedy is more open discussion with clients at each stage of the process, and more conversation around data sets in advance of reporting to the broader team.

And as to the “errant” finding for my pharma client? Well, I spent the better part of a day (I was young) rewriting the topline to play down Factor J’s role in the overall scheme of things. At day’s end, I gravely presented it to Boss. “Oh, you didn’t need to do that,” Boss said airily. “I called the client and they said that this [Factor J] was cropping up now in some other market research they are doing. So it isn’t that weird a finding after all. Just send off the first topline that you wrote.”

Which, I have to admit, came as a surprise.

T.H. Kern is Executive Vice President at Armature Group, a healthcare market research consultancy based in Wynnewood, PA. He can be reached via

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