Weak signals, artists and strategic directions

The father of strategic management, Igor Ansoff, saw identification of weak signals and appropriate response to them as key components of strategy. Coming from a perspective of analysis (he was, after all, a mathematician) he defined a pattern to such identification and response. The essential realisation here is that “sudden” changes are actually not sudden, and there are usually warnings to heed. The five steps are sometimes combined, but the basic sequence is the same: 

  1. To begin with, we somehow “get a feeling” about a threat or opportunity. 
  2. On sensing it we investigate it and possibly locate the source of the signal. 
  3. On considering the signal we form an opinion about its vector (speed and direction) and its essential nature, then formulate responses and consider different scenarios.
  4. After some time, possible outcomes may become clear, at which point… 
  5. …we can reformulate our strategy. 

Since Ansoff, the idea of weak signals (a term which he coined, incidentally) has waxed and waned in relative importance being given to it by management thinkers and professionals. Over the last few years, foresight practitioners have been emphasising just how crucial detection and analysis of weak signals really is, since it’s precisely at the point of still being weak that emerging threats and possibilities offer us the highest chance for appropriate strategic action. Our current predicament of needing to deal with numerous vectors of change coming at us from different directions all at the same time makes it imperative that we rapidly tune up our weak signal antennae and put in place appropriate rapid response mechanisms. Management practice in the main, however, still requires people to put “clear-cut” arguments and “watertight” cases before the board. Fear is the driving principle, instead of curiosity. Terror of being wrong overshadows, and then kills, any possibility of being right early. Hear that? That was the sound of another opportunity biting the dust.

A major shift in management logic is required – broadening the horizon of what is taught and practiced, to include consideration of weak signals. This is rather difficult, given our roots in the empirical tradition and a business logic which demands rational decisions based on facts.

The point of this shift, however, is not to throw out existing modes of management but to augment them; to enrich and fortify them with approaches and tools more suited to today’s fast pace. It is clear that listening to weak signals, analysing them and acting on insights thus gained should be a course taught at every business school, but it is not. MBA courses continue to flood the executive market place with high quality experts in planning and optimisation, while what we need is vision and imagination. There are, of course, also many examples of leaders who tuned into weak signals and made decisions accordingly, resulting in big wins for their companies. Unfortunately for established enterprises, however, most of those leaders are steering aggressive digitally-enabled startups, and they are coming for you. Very soon, managing exclusively from a perspective of hallowed orthodoxy will become a museum relic and an example of what not to do. The zone of what is possible lies beyond what you know.

There are companies that have implemented similar programmes to great effect. IBM’s “Crow’s Nest” system for listening to weak signals coming in along the periphery of the business and sharing them with top brass is focused on four specific areas, which they call zones: globalisation, networks, customer diversity and time compression. Your own business environment will govern what those listening areas ought to be for you. Identifying them will be a starting point for the process of setting up a proper “early warning system.”

Working with artists and creative professionals can help. In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan wrote: “The power of the arts to anticipate future social and technological developments, by a generation or more, has long been recognised. This concept of the arts as prophetic, contrasts with the popular idea of them as mere self-expression.” He was very precise in his evaluation of art as a weathervane for the future: “I think of art, at its most significant, as a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.” Among the many other writers who have voiced similar ideas is the poet and consultant (he is both, really) David Whyte, who echoed this in his book The Heart Aroused: “A good artist, it is often said, is fifty to a hundred years ahead of their time. The artist must depict this new world before all the evidence is in. Leaders must learn the same artistic discipline, they must learn to respond or conceive of something that will move in the same direction in which the World is moving, without waiting for all the evidence to appear on their desks. To wait for all the evidence is to finally recognize it through a competitor’s product.”

Business loves to measure results since measuring is an exact science (if you measure the right things,) and business loves exact science, however the need to combine science with other tools is desperately urgent. Learning to see through complexity and to read ambiguous signals is not a science. It is an art, and as such it can best be learned from artists.

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