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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

A four-step framework to spot weak signals of disruption

How to spot, harvest, channel, and convert weak signals into productive tools for your business.

A four-step framework to spot weak signals of disruption
[Photo Source: stokkete/Adobe]

How often do you take note of curious new behaviors—things that bear little resemblance to norms, that may even seem outlandish or inappropriate? Do you dismiss these out of hand as aberrations, or do you stop to ponder whether they signal something bigger?

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Of the many truths reinforced by the pandemic, one is certainly that tomorrow can suddenly become very different than what we expected.

We are being forced to abandon old assumptions and reframe how we imagine the future—how we go about our daily lives, pursue careers, manage our health, use technology, build relationships, and participate in our communities.

In this new world, improving the capacity to spot, assess, and sort the weak signals—leading indicators of disruptive change—will be an advantage. If you are an innovator, you cannot afford to ignore them.

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WHY DO WE MISS THE WEAK SIGNALS?

Weak signals are all around us, all the time. They are challenging to recognize precisely because they are weak.

Weak signals:

• May seem so out of place relative to norms that they are easily dismissed or overlooked.

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• Tend to show up as crude, implausible renditions of what will emerge later in highly polished form. They are subjected to groupthink and individual biases that block new ideas.

• Are interpreted by our natural inclination to shape facts to what we already know.

The teams that spot, interpret, and channel the weak signals into plans to monitor, prototype, and experiment are able to lean into disruptive opportunities and set themselves up for market leadership.

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Just in the past year, growth in spaces including telemedicine, online learning, e-commerce, and remote work has provided examples of disruptive trends that may have taken off during the pandemic but were foreshadowed by earlier weak signals.

AN EXAMPLE OF A MISSED WEAK SIGNAL

In the early 2000s pre-iPhone era, I led a digital transformation team at Citi Cards that exposed cardmembers to the idea of “tap and go” RFID technology as a means of payment with a small device attached to a keyring that would displace the physical plastic credit card. The first use case: paying fares in urban mass transit systems.

The weak signal that stimulated this experiment: Users’ joyful emotional reaction as they eagerly described how they would feel paying without having to pull out their wallet, fumble with poorly designed payment cards, and wait in disorderly queues.

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An even earlier weak signal, visible in retrospect in the team’s consumer research: Driver adoption of and reaction to RFID technology at highway tollbooths.

Banking traditionalists in the organization were quick to dismiss the possibilities of hand-held RFID payment form factors, unable to make the leap from user enthusiasm to a huge market shift toward contactless payments. They were attached to the primacy of the card itself and evaluated user feedback and the business implications through the lens of the then-current operating model of the payments infrastructure. Merchants located in the test footprint, approached to participate in the trial, largely resisted nominal upgrades to their point-of-sale terminals required to process RFID transactions. The attitude was “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” After all, everyone reasoned, magnetic stripe-based plastic cards performed virtually 100% of the time. So why change?

Of course, within a decade, contactless payments became ubiquitous: They are now embedded in transit systems around the world and we’re seeing growing consumer and merchant adoption and identifiable business benefits with many use cases. Banks were left chasing disruptors who jumped in to claim ownership of mobile wallets, crowding the user interface. Retailers are struggling to differentiate the in-store experience and attract digital natives to their brands.

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HOW TO READ THE WEAK SIGNALS OF CHANGE

You don’t need a crystal ball to spot weak signals. But you do need to develop specific execution muscles and commit to a process that more closely resembles an anthropological view versus a numbers-based analysis. Here is a four-part framework to spot, harvest, channel, and convert weak signals into productive tools for your business:

1. EMBRACE THE MINDSET

Cultivate curiosity as a habit. A simple step? Start by recognizing and accepting that we filter what we see based on what we know. Ask simple questions such as, “Can you tell me more about that?” when you encounter new ideas. Instead of thinking, “That’s crazy,” ask yourself, “What could be behind what I’m observing?” “Why might people be using my products in ways we never expected?” The bottom line is to have an open mind, challenge preconceptions, and stop to explore for more when you stumble on unusual behaviors or circumstances.

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2. CAST A WIDE AND DECENTRALIZED NET TO GATHER SIGNALS

Go far to the edge of your organization, partner and vendor relationships and social network for observations, paying special attention to things that stand out as strange or curious. This is the starting point for spotting and sets you up to avoid biases. Leverage technologies such as speech, text, and image mining to leverage social media data.

3. CREATE A MECHANISM TO INTERPRET AND UNDERSTAND THE SIGNALS

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Keep a journal—narrative, images, and other stimuli—of signals, including what is interesting and what each suggests. Including keywords that will facilitate later analysis. What might each signal mean when considered from different perspectives? How do individual signals converge and connect?

4. CHANNEL THE SIGNALS FOR MONITORING AND/OR FURTHER ACTION

This is the most important step to ensure your efforts are more than an interesting thought experiment. Begin to organize the signals—perhaps a few key trends are emerging that suggest logical groupings. Which ones should be set aside, monitored more intensively, or moved toward brainstorming workshops that might generate prototypes of new concepts for experimentation? What alternative scenarios and new hypotheses do the signals you are seeing suggest?

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By creating the capability to spot the weak signals that foretell your future, you can reduce the risk of being ambushed by a new disruption or missing a major opportunity that could have been flagged for early action.


Amy Radin is a director, advisor, and author who helps teams turn ideas and insights into innovation results.

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