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  • 13 December 2010 15:59

‘Weak Signal’ theory holds the secret of potential business success

"It is the smart, profitable individuals and companies who can spot the formation of these patterns in their embryonic state."

By John England, Managing Director, Mindsystems Pty Ltd

If you have ever asked ‘Why didn’t I see that ... it was right under my nose all the time?’, you were expressing is an example of ‘Weak Signal Theory’.

We are constantly bombarded with ‘weak signals’, some because they are genuinely weak and some because our brain has suppressed them. This automatic filtering of information is designed to prevent sensory overload.

An example of such overload is found in autistic children who have difficulty in concentrating. It is not that they cannot concentrate, rather they do not really know what to concentrate on, or how to screen out the ‘background noise’.

The reasons why business information is screened out or filtered in are varied. For example, adverse financial pressure can make us ‘risk adverse’. In other words we are afraid to take risks by trying new things therefore we focus on what we know rather than what could be.

One definition of insanity is doing what did not work in the past and expecting a different outcome. Being successful in a certain strategy can equate to seeing no reason to change. But a truth in business is that you are going forwards or backwards and if you try resting on your laurels the latter (i.e. going backwards) soon takes over.

An example is General Motors’ dire situation resulting from the belief that their ‘gas guzzlers’ would always be in demand. When an idea is all yours, ego can prevent you from seeing other options. Slavishly sticking to a conventional wisdom such as a published ‘industry best practice’ can give a blinkered view.

While striving for the best and maintaining quality is very important, it can mean that you ignore other options and end up being indistinguishable from all your competitors. There are clear parallels between this theory and Chaos Theory. Chaos Theory does not really say that everything is chaotic, rather that we are surrounded by an ever changing maelstrom of data and information and that in this chaos patterns emerge and dissipate again.

We could say that we see the emergence to trends and even knowledge ... but it is an ever changing vista. It is the smart, profitable individuals and companies who can spot the formation of these patterns in their embryonic state.

To detect these weak signals we need to devise a strategy, so first let us jot down some key points. We need to:

• Do something to cut down the background noise.

• Be on the alert for the smokescreen that ‘conventional wisdom’ can throw up.

• Develop techniques to ‘see the emerging patterns’ in the chaos which is information overload.

• Look for and expect the unexpected.**

• Adjust our attitude to seek success in the unusual and the marginalised ideas and opportunities.

** Criticism is sometimes levelled at this statement with the comment that you cannot anticipate what is ‘unexpected’. True in one sense, but you can develop an open, enquiring mind set which allows you to see the ‘patterns’ as they start to emerge.

A great example of these sorts of concepts was found in a recent handwritten ‘rant’ produced by Frank Kern (an acknowledged internet marketing guru) on a recent US internal fight. There were lots of inspirational ideas in his ten handwritten pages, but they can be distilled into one of those ‘blinding flashes of the obvious’ Frank had during that trip.

He noticed that all the First class seats were occupied, while there were significant numbers of empty seats in Coach class. Why was that, in a time of financial crisis? He then formulated the great thought that ‘in this meltdown the money has not gone, it has merely moved from one place to another’. So the marketing message was clear and is embodied in this question: ‘Do you want to have fire sales and focus on selling to Coach, or offer high quality at a good price to First class?’

This was a perfect example of a ‘Weak Signal’ being there for anyone to see. However, it took something special and definite sensitivity to the environment to spot it and then verbalise it. What can you do to detect these signals? Whether you are a company or an individual, just consider these possibilities:

• Create a culture of change, reward risk taking (considered not stupid risk taking).

• Encourage people to come up with new approaches, even way out approaches (often in less enlightened cultures, they would be called ‘stupid ideas’).

• When an idea seems alien do not instinctively say ‘No’ but rather ‘Well that is not something I would do, but what if we could do that? What would be the advantage?’

• Look for trends and patterns in everything, particularly unusual events.

• Use techniques and software than can help you tune-in to the signals.

• Use visually based information handling techniques which encourage pattern identification.

• Use thematic and contextual assessment tools to reduce information overload. (These techniques help you screen large amounts of information and allow you to decide what needs special attention).

How to tune in to ‘weak signals’

Above all, you need to learn how to attune yourself and your organisation to pick up ‘weak signals’. Mindsystems has the special expertise and solutions available to assist you… MindManager 9 software, for example.

Weak Signal Research refers to those organisational traits and organic components that enable the enterprise to detect weak signals as a matter of course, build models and stories that illustrate the possible effects of whole sets of signals over time, and redesign itself efficiently to take advantage of these possibilities.

# The author, John England, is Managing Director of training and management consultancy Mindsystems Pty Ltd, reseller of Mindjet MindManager software. He has extensive experience in management and training in both multinational companies and the armed services. Twice John held positions as National Training Manager of multinational companies before starting his own company. Earlier his career encompassed the roles of low power nuclear reactor chemist and nuclear submarine officer.

John may be contacted at: +61.3.9999 1310 or

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