Weak signals in change

on Apr 15, 2014 in Blog

Lead in midst of changeA recent article in McKinsey Quarterly highlighted the strength of ‘weak signals’. If you haven’t read it, the authors explain how snippets of information, often hidden in social-media streams, offer companies a valuable tool for staying ahead. Their focus is external scanning for potential opportunities by capitalising on weak signals hidden within a torrent of digital information. They argue that weak signals can be strategically important, and therefore worthy of top management time and attention.

However, weak signals within organisations are also extremely valuable for leaders and decision-makers to understand. They can provide early warning signs of potential problems and opportunities which are being created as an organisation is changing and developing. Understanding these weak signals can help leaders act sooner – to take responsive action in live change to help seize opportunities and head off problems, while they are still small.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the Kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

A well-known proverb describes events escalating until a Kingdom was lost, all for the want of a horseshoe nail. Here, the implications of responding later, rather than sooner, are clearly spelt out. We can also see this on a practical level in organisations.

For example, one senior manager made it his business to tune into the ‘rumour index’, as he called it, to gauge people’s concerns during a particularly volatile period. This gave him clues about the unintended effects of managerial actions and also gave him the opportunity to target his communications to nip some of the more outlandish rumours in the bud. However another manager wrote off murmurs of resentment about new initiatives as an inevitable resistance to change, which is normally short-lived. So he failed to realise that they forewarned a serious deterioration of trust in senior management – to his cost.

As these examples clearly show, weak signals within organisations are not just hidden in social media. We can find them in everyday actions and words. But they are also easy to miss, unless you actively look for them.

Leaders and decision-makers who want to discover weak signals about emerging opportunities and problems can help themselves by:

  • listening and observing
  • interacting with different people
  • encouraging diverse perspectives.

This means going beyond the usual suspects to find and engage with people who have a different view. For example, people branded ‘resistors’ in change can be really interesting to speak to. It means paying attention to small clues, such as a throwaway comment, a ripple of excitement in a room, or a growing disconnect between two teams, and asking yourself, and others, what’s going on here?

Sometimes, it can be helpful to scan for weak signals more formally. For example in larger organisations, during times of major change, or when you have multiple projects running in different areas of the business. By gathering data about typical patterns in your organisation, you can then monitor slight changes and ask questions about what’s going on. This gives leaders and decision-makers insight into the dynamic patterning of change in their organisation, so they can take responsive action to harness emerging opportunities and head-off potential problems.