Picking-up Weak Signals 
From Intuition to Conviction
by Robert Salmon

During the postwar years, and a few years after, the economy was growing regularly and our environment seemed fairly easy to predict. We thought we knew with certainty what was going to happen, and traditional planning and forecast activities were well adapted to this period. Today, however, we are entering a new sphere. The environment is increasingly complex, technological leaps continue and new players emerge in traditional industries every day. 

Managers get confused as changes in the environment are constant and leave no or little time for reflection. This turbulence in itself is not dangerous as it offers multiple new opportunities. What is dangerous is the risk of making decisions using yesterday's logic. The faster one is driving, the farther the lights need to project. 

To survive, a company must no longer trust existing trends or "strong signals;" instead, it needs to identify "weak signals" - those which announce future changes in their strategic landscape. This article will illustrate how for those who know how to observe, the future is already written in today's viscera.

Identify shifts

Shifts occur at the point where an industry or an environment is about to change dramatically and where the rules for playing the game are being transformed into drastically different ones. 

It is often difficult for managers to identify these shifts:

  • Decision-making executives are often obsessed with short-term objectives (the so-called "Wall-Street syndrome")
  • It is difficult to identify a weak signal in the middle of the non-strategic "noise." One cannot hear the violin when it is drowned out by the drums.

The strategic intelligence's value lies in the ability to discern between useful information and "fatal" information and, of course, by the capacity of being able to raise the important questions. The strategic intelligence cell should therefore be in a level in the organization high enough to be recognized and heard.

The notion of subtlety

Each event (ideas, situations, actions or products) can now be communicated around the world as soon as it emerges and will be taken into account in the decision-making process of executives. In this context where executives get bombarded by a large amount of information, the key to competing effectively is no longer to make a lot of noise - it is to make a different noise.

In particular, it is important for companies to understand subtle actions that can make a difference: either by creating a small gap (a new approach) or a large gap (an incubating idea for tomorrow). 

This is why governing by "weak signals" has become a new way of managing in companies. The two questions to ask about weak signals are:

  • What are, today, the new ideas incubating for the future?
  • How do you detect them and benefit from them?

To answer these questions, I propose an approach in four steps:

  • Make surprise a way of life
  • Learn to screen trends
  • Learn from others
  • Listen carefully

1 - Make surprise a way of life

This habit can be observed by Japanese tourists visiting a foreign country: each tourist forces him or herself to write notes about everything that has been surprising during the trip, without knowing what will be interesting to keep when they return to their country. As a result, a wealth of new ideas is generated at no cost for the country.

To be effective, this systematic collection of individual notes needs to be conducted by a large number of people. This means that: 

  • The group needs to understand that new ideas are important;
  • After notes have been taken, the group needs to analyze the learning gained. There are two reasons for this: first, to allow the group to benefit from the ideas, and second, to justify the approach as a group.

You don't need any sophisticated tools to collect the information. You might develop a template, or just take free notes. What is important is to have a process to analyze the information collected.

2 - Learn to screen trends

A key success factor in screening trends is to develop a solid filter to be used to sifter through the immense mass of information available. This filter can be much broader than just observing competitors or technology trends. It usually also includes the notion of ideas and competencies

The process of screening trends is especially developed in companies which have understood that, often, answers about the future are already here, but need to be uncovered.

To learn more about tools to help you screen information automatically using keywords, refer to our article last December, "Automatically Screening the News." (at www.competia.com ed.) When you have gathered the information, use tools such as "Umap" to analyze results and find the weak signals.

3 - Learn from others 

Benchmarking consists in comparing your company or industry to the "Best-in-class" 
to understand which areas to develop or competencies to acquire.

4 - Listen carefully

Interviewing experts to understand an industry is a well-known technique to obtain information about future trends. What is often not done well, however, is knowing how to conduct a good interview. Often, the experts will not tell you exactly what market trends might be because they do not know that they know it. This knowledge is unconscious

To unveil this dormant knowledge, CI specialists learn techniques (please refer to the excellent October article by Bruno Vanasse in Competia : "Basic Interview Techniques"). In general, such interviews are conducted as follows:

  • Stimulating discussion in a small group;
  • Use of images to stimulate intuition;
  • Analysis of behavior to identify what was not expressed.


I just left L'Oreal, where I had implemented a strategic process to understand the future based on seven angles: societal, competitive, geopolitical, technological, market, legislative, geographical. 

This screening of trends took place in all areas where the group could face threats or opportunities. I would add to those seven angles another one: the "president and decision-making executives' intelligence."

  • Screening weak signals would be useless if they don't fit with these managers' aspirations;
  • The champion for such an initiative is the president in all cases. Knowing - or assessing - what preoccupies him/her is key to making the initiative a success.

This approach uses two contradictory skills: intuition and rationality. The first one allows us to pick the signals, and the second to act on it. It is useless to pick signals if we do not fight to have them analyzed and used.

Robert Salmon is author of the book "Competitive Intelligence: Scanning the Global Environment" with Yolaine de Linares) London & Paris: Economica (9, Wimpole St). April 1999.

Robert Salmon's article was originally featured at www.competia.com in February 2000, 
and is reprinted with permission.

Competia Online is a production of Executive Resource Inc.

Many more articles in Competitive Strategy in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 1999 by B.I.P. (Executive Resource) Inc. All rights reserved.

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