Academic journal article Defense Counsel Journal

Surprise! How Can Insights from Other High-Pressure Occupations Help Legal Professionals Better Handle Unexpected Events?

Academic journal article Defense Counsel Journal

Surprise! How Can Insights from Other High-Pressure Occupations Help Legal Professionals Better Handle Unexpected Events?

Article excerpt

MIKE Wheaton knows about surprise. (1) As a coach in the National Football League (NFL) for more than 20 years, Wheaton is one of the longest-serving coaches in the franchise's history. For a profession that is known for being short-lived, Wheaton's longevity is a testament to his effective mastery of the job and, in particular, in dealing with surprises. (2) When I called Wheaton to discuss his approach to dealing with surprise, he stated his position clearly: "If I'm doing my job right, there should never be any surprises."

He went on to describe that his preparations begin in the off-season, when the coaching staff receives the team's schedule for the upcoming year. Once the preseason begins, Wheaton and his fellow coaches start reviewing hours of videotape and thousands of photographs from previous games. Wheaton's goal is to determine how his opponents think and behave in every situation. The output of all of this research is the team's playbook, which provides the coaching staff with a detailed list of "what if' plans for any situation they might find themselves in. His team's playbook is so specific that the coaches can input the down number, the team's position on the field, and the opposing team's formation, and the playbook will recommend the best course of action.

Wheaton, therefore, prepares for surprise by thinking about every possible scenario that can happen to his team, and then generating a playbook as a way to eliminate foreseeable chances that he will be surprised. But what about practitioners who do not possess the luxury of a planning season and reams of historical performance data?

After speaking with Wheaton, my conversations turned to former Navy Sea, Air, Land (SEAL) platoon commander Chris Bradford. At first glance, it would seem that Bradford could appreciate Wheaton's approach to dealing with surprise; before serving as a SEAL platoon commander, Bradford wrote his master's thesis on what the Navy can learn from the NFL. Similarly, Wheaton spends his off-season reading military doctrine because, he says, it makes him a better strategist on the field. (The two men have never met.)

I led my interview with Bradford by asking if he, like Wheaton, prepares detailed plans for all of his missions. Surprisingly, Bradford said, "I need my guys to have clear heads on the ground, otherwise they're going to make mistakes. The last thing I want is to be worrying about all of the countless things that could go wrong and cramming plans into their heads at the last minute."

Bradford went on to describe his preparation process. Instead of reviewing every possible scenario and devising a plan against it, Bradford limits his scope to the key parameters particular to the upcoming mission: What is the mission goal? What is the route to the target? What are the primary threats that the team is likely to face? To address these, Bradford and his team review aerial photos, identify key landmarks, and discuss ingress and egress strategies. They may notionally walk through the mission before going out into the field, but Bradford notes that there is no such thing as a playbook for his SEALs.

The differences between the two approaches are striking for two reasons. First, Bradford and Wheaton clearly see their professions as analogs of one another, as evidenced by the fact that they each spend time researching the other profession's strategies. Yet, they maintain completely opposite approaches to dealing with unexpected scenarios: Wheaton thinks about everything that could possibly go wrong, while Bradford tries to stay focused on the bigger picture, despite the fact that Bradford faces an existential threat every time he goes to work. Why would the SEALs--individuals who risk their lives on every mission--have far fewer "what if' plans than football players?

To address this and other surprise-related questions, my colleague Steven D. Fox and I interviewed a number of highly successful professionals to find out what they believe creates surprise, how they prepare and respond to it, and how the negative effects of surprise can be mitigated. …

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