So, how can organisations anticipate future developments? We can identify the trends that are already evident in the present and consider their consequences. The assumption that we are making is that some type of future can already be seen from the present. But what if there is no clear picture of the future yet? What if there is an array of alternate futures?
In strategic foresight, we use the concept of weak signals as “the first indicator of a change or an emerging issue that may become significant in the future”. Weak signals are existing things or phenomena in our peripheral vision, that can help us challenge our assumptions about the future and imagine different types of futures. A weak signal usually shows 5 characteristics: novelty, surprise, challenge, significance and delay.
Let’s take dumpster diving as an example. What started off as hungry people in need rummaging through bins for discarded food, has grown into a lifestyle choice of the alternative scene. Over time attitudes towards food waste changed. Today, food past its best-before date is distributed free of charge, sold at a discount to knowledgeable customers in stores and even served up as dinner at zero-waste eateries. As so often it took about five to ten years for a weak signal to mature into a phenomenon. This example shows how important it is that we don’t use weak signals as forecasts, but more as stimuli for thought. We have not become a society of dumpster divers, but conscious about food waste.
Weak signals often go unnoticed because we are too immersed in our daily work or dismiss them as one-off anomalies, strange or even ludicrous imaginations. Organisational biases—such as groupthink or polarisation—often make us blind for such subtle hints, even in organisations with an active scanning process.
So how can we repeatedly identify weak signals? Besides keeping an open mind, the courage to challenge preconceptions and halting when coming across curious details, there is a structured process organisations can apply.
1. Gathering signals by utilising various sources from media monitoring to discussions, expert panels, workshops and your own observations.
→Tip: pay special attention to surprising details
2. Interpreting signals individually by considering different perspectives, as well as collectively looking into mutual interactions between different signals.
→Tip: Imagine what kinds of future worlds the weak signals could point to
3. Packaging signals by sorting them by different categories (eg. PESTEL or VERGE categorisation) to highlight signal clusters and their potential impact.
→Tip: Ask yourself which signals are the most thought-provoking
I believe, this systematic charting of weak signals should be an integral part of any organisation’s foresight process. Then weak signals can alert companies to recognise, for example, rapid changes in the operating environment or even foretell the upheaval of an entire sector or the erosion of a business model.