Summary Written by Rex Williams
"If there’s something that’s really a big surprise… that’s generally the real world speaking to you, saying there’s something you don’t yet understand."

- Leapfrogging, page 6

The Big Idea

Lose Control

"A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it."- John Steinbeck, quoted in Leapfrogging, page 51

After researching and gathering data on all kinds of business breakthroughs, including looking back over his 20 years of experience in the corporate and startup world, Kaplan realized that time and time again, unexpected events and big surprises played essential roles in how ideas surfaced and became a reality. He recounts detailed examples of how businesses ‘leapfrogged’ their mindset by either driving a surprise, or learning from surprises that happened to them.

It’s difficult to just go out and challenge fundamental assumptions (a necessity for breakthroughs). Most business leaders resist doing that. In fact, it’s what they’re trained to do: manage uncertainty, increase predictability and maximize control. Their mission is to achieve business success by analyzing opportunities and executing flawless plans to achieve well-defined goals, essentially, to take uncertainty and surprise out of the equation.

The problem is that this kind of mindset demonizes the natural aspects of life and the essential elements that are inherent in the process of achieving breakthrough success. “We must embrace counterintuitive ideas that go against the grain of management and leadership as we know it if we are going to succeed in today’s whirlwind world.”

“Surprises are guideposts,” Kaplan says. “Using surprises as strategic tools involves paying close attention to the things that happen around us and directly to us.” He explains that the goal is to use unexpected events or surprising experiences, and our reactions to them, to reevaluate our strategies, plans, and most importantly, our assumptions about what’s possible.

Insight #1


"By taking a series of small steps, we begin a cycle of learning that leads to bigger and greater things."- Leapfrogging, page 106

We sometimes forget (or don’t even know) the stories of the current great successes that we are familiar with now. Apple didn’t start out with plans to change the music industry by creating iTunes, it was just a small step that seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Google didn’t set out to transform the internet, they just wanted to find a way to make better library searches. They didn’t even have a way to make money until they created Adwords.

Kaplan uses these examples and others to show that usually the best course of action is just that: action. When you move in a direction, whichever direction that is, you’ll learn a lot faster whether it’ll work or not, or if a different action is necessary. Studies show that having an entrepreneurial mindset, or taking action in the midst of uncertainty, will help you learn faster because you realize that you don’t know everything, and the best way to get real data is from actual interactions with customers, or at least a relative experience of what you’re trying to make happen.

“Entrepreneurs don’t believe they can predict the future, so they don’t try. Rather, they try to create it for themselves, one step at a time.”

My plan is to take the smallest step possible to learn what I need to know, or to test my assumption about what I think might happen at a larger scale. This way, if I fail, I won’t experience a significant drawback because I didn’t invest much.

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Insight #2


"Real failure results only when we do one thing: give up."- Leapfrogging, page 135

Leapfrogging is about using failure as a tool to find success. When we’re attempting to create something groundbreaking, we will experience failures along the way. There’s almost no way around it. The key is to be ready for it, willing to accept it, and able to respond to it in a productive way.

Kaplan describes a key phase in the process or journey of creating a breakthrough as the ‘Failure Zone’. It occurs after the initial excitement of an idea, and even the tangible focus of seeing it take form, but when we get closer to it coming to fruition, fear and doubt begin to sink in and drag us into the ‘Zone’.

Fear is even more powerful than failure itself. When we’re doing something difficult, we’re preconditioned to give up. Our gut instinct is to submit to the urge to fail. And Kaplan cites research that makes this case. The results demonstrate that fear stems from uncertainty about the future and a sense of not being fully in control. The fear of failure can actually be worse than the failure itself because it will stop us from taking action, or moving forward and learning from any setbacks we might experience.

Understanding this power of fear and doubt gives me a new perspective that will move me to persist when I notice fear creeping into my consciousness. Kaplan provides strategies to reframe failure, or “negative surprises,” as stepping stones and push the whole idea of failure itself into the background. With this mindset, I am now able to battle through the ‘Failure Zone’.

Surprises are a natural part of life, and will exist in business, no matter how detailed your plans are. The key is to realize that they are your most valuable components to achieving real business breakthroughs.

What surprises have you seen in your business or life that have helped you break assumptions and enabled you to ‘leapfrog’ into a better future?

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Soren Kaplan

Soren Kaplan is the author of the Wall Street Journal bestselling book Leapfrogging. As the Founder of InnovationPoint, he works with organizations including Disney, Kimberly-Clark, Colgate-Palmolive, Medtronic, Philips, PepsiCo, and numerous other global firms. Soren previously led the internal strategy and innovation group at Hewlett-Packard (HP) during the roaring 1990’s in Silicon Valley and was a co-founder of iCohere, one of the first web collaboration platforms for online learning and communities of practice. He is an Adjunct Professor within the Imagineering Academy at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands and sits on the advisory boards of several start-ups including Glyder and Famtivity. He has been quoted, published, and interviewed by FastCompany, Forbes, CNBC, National Public Radio, the American Management Association, USA Today, Strategy & Leadership, and The International Handbook on Innovation, among many others. He holds Master’s and Ph.D. degrees in Organizational Psychology and resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, two daughters, and hypo-allergenic cat.

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