How to Scan for Weak Signals of Change
The following article is part of the MaRS Discovery District's Startup Toolkit and is reposted with permission. The originals are available here and here.
Sensing; perceiving; conceiving
Scanning for weak signals of change is a technique for sensing events and trends that may evolve to have a significant impact on a business. It is a foundational phase of the foresight process and a worthwhile practice for any organization.
So what ARE weak signals of change?
/ Weak signals are simply data points that indicate significant change could be underway. They represent emerging issues that could plausibly affect your business model, operations or industry environment.
/ Weak signals are instances of change that are perceivable when you look beyond your core knowledge base and day-to-day business activities and into adjacent and peripheral spaces. Weak signals are new and surprising, and likely unknown or not taken seriously by your colleagues.
As a business decision-maker, identifying early signs of potentially disruptive change enables you to anticipate and adjust your strategic plans, rather than having to rush to react.
Weak signals that may initially be seen as a threat can transform into an opportunity to secure an advantaged position in the long term.
Use the STEEP framework
When you start scanning for weak signals of change, refer to the STEEP framework (below), which will help ensure you capture a wide breadth of signals. STEEP stands for social, technological, economic, environmental and political.
The social realm concerns what people do, say and feel, as well as their values, beliefs and opinions. Consider looking at:
/ Emerging news beats and human-interest threads
/ Underemphasized injustices and inequalities
/ Social unrest and emerging movements
/ Instances of conflict and public debate
/ Themes in the arts, humour, culture and subcultures
The technological domain focuses on scientific progress and innovation. Consider looking at:
/ Patent filings
/ Requests for proposals (RFPs)
/ Startup activity
/ Scientific journals
/ Titles and talks at academic or industry conferences
The economic domain centres around “the economy” as well as commercial activity in general. Consider looking at:
/ New business models and offerings
/ State of the labour market
/ Trends in financial services
/ Mergers, acquisitions and divestitures
/ Securities and markets
/ Currencies and other mediums of exchanging value
The environmental realm concerns the condition of the natural world, resource availability and waste streams, the risk and impact of natural disasters, and ecological and geological systems. Consider looking at:
/ Energy and material alternatives
/ Sustainability goals
/ Environment and climate change policy recommendations
The political domain has to do with governments and legislation. Consider looking at:
/ Regulatory frameworks
/ New tariffs, policies and barriers for business
/ Geopolitical stability
/ Public infrastructures in areas such as education, healthcare, finance, transportation and communications
Keep in mind that the STEEP categories are collectively exhaustive, not mutually exclusive. Weak signals don’t usually fit neatly into one category. The point of this framework is simply to nudge you to cover your bases with a balanced variety of signals.
Before you begin scanning, scope your research
Before you begin scanning, establish a clear research hypothesis about where you’ll look for weak signals of change and the kinds of weak signals that are relevant. Scanning is concerned with new information that may challenge the status quo, so begin by understanding what are considered to be credible assumptions about the future of your subject. This will help you determine where to extend your radar. This way you can start to consider what might be included and what is beyond the parameters of your study domain.
To help frame your scan, find out:
/ What is the area of interest (e.g., an issue, an industry space, a consumer group or other subject)?
/ What assumptions about the future are embedded in the ways people talk about the domain? Which larger systems and forces shape this space?
/ What are some key themes and topics to explore?
/ What are the known unknowns? What do we need to learn more about?
/ Where might we find the unknown unknowns? What information do we feel is missing?
/ What do we know enough about already?
/ What are we uncertain about?
Organize your findings for the questions above. Try:
/ Creating a systems map so you can better understand where and how disruption could occur
/ Articulating the assumed or baseline future perspective (and clarifying what to scan for by contrast)
/ Building a list of macro drivers of change (i.e., well-researched global trends that are affecting the world today and are projected to extend into the foreseeable future). Acknowledging these early on will help free your mind to explore areas of less-understood, but potentially high-impact change
All of these materials can be used to create a one-page brief that outlines the parameters of your scan, calls out particular questions and subjects of interest, and guides the scope of your team’s research efforts.
Scan for weak signals of change: Break out of your filter bubble!
Scanning is a process of identifying unknown or under-appreciated signals of potentially high-impact change.
To find these signals, you’ll have to break out of your filter bubble and look beyond the sources you typically follow and trust. While you’ll likely do a lot of your scanning online, it’s worthwhile to make a habit of scanning in real life. You might notice a weak signal in a piece of graffiti you see on the way to work, or in the theme of a play mounted by a community theatre group, or in a conversation you overhear on public transit. Conversations and interviews with subject matter experts are also useful both for determining a research direction and for confirming the relevance of your findings.
When you find a weak signal of change, record it and share with your team (in a shared document or other software). Give the signal a name to serve as a shorthand for the idea, and document what’s changing and why it matters.
For example, you might record a signal as follows:
Signal: Development of exosuits to reduce physical injury and fatigue
Description: Through its Warrior Web program, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) at the US Department of Defense is working to develop technology to reduce musculoskeletal injuries incurred during ground operations. Troops are susceptible to acute and chronic injuries as they carry heavy gear during patrols in dangerous and unfamiliar terrain. DARPA aims to employ a robotics exosuit to protect injury-prone areas and augment positive work done by the muscles.
Relevance: The commercialization of military exosuits may increase productivity and reduce human injuries in manufacturing, logistics, construction and mining. What are the potentially disruptive implications of inexpensive and easily accessible exosuits? What role might exosuits play in offsetting job-loss caused by automation? What are some rogue-use scenarios? Long-term potential to provide superhuman abilities and spur the development of new cyborg sports.
How to interpret your scan
After you finish scanning for weak signals of change, you need to interpret the data. This involves:
/ Asking questions and discussing in-depth the relevance of the signals and their potential influence
/ Speculating on potential primary, secondary, tertiary and further cascading impacts of these signals
/ Exploring how signals might interact with each other and with the system to create surprises
/ Clustering signals into thematic groups that reveal patterns of change
/ Identifying potential opportunities and threats
Tips for sharing and using a weak signals scan
You need to consider several important editorial issues when preparing a scan for teams and decision-makers. Because the weak signals scan will contain a lot of new and unfamiliar information that is likely to challenge the perspectives of its readers, it is especially important that you share the results in a clear, concise, and cogent fashion. The scan needs to provide just enough information to ensure its audience understands the issues at play.
The point of the scan is to make sure your organization pays attention to what’s changing. If your analysis is too long-winded and confusing or if it lacks explanatory context, you risk compromising the credibility of your research.
How you present your scan depends on what you’ve learned and how you plan to use your findings. Consider what type of organizational framework will work best. You may want to highlight a handful of critical issues and uncertainties for ongoing monitoring. These will also serve you well as the raw material for generating future scenarios later in the foresight process.
You may also wish to develop a list of thematic change patterns based on the ways you’ve intuitively clustered your signals. And, depending on the strategic objectives of your scan, you may present the signals as data in support of the areas of opportunity you’ve identified.
Ideally, if you have a dedicated team scanning on a continuous basis, signals can be shared in a regularly recurring meeting or presented in gallery-fashion in a dedicated digital or physical space.