Using Weak Signals To Determine Your Future Organisation


“Weak signals consist of emergent changes to technology, culture, markets, the economy, consumer tastes and behaviour, and demographics.  Weak signals are hard to evaluate because they are incomplete, unsettled and unclear” – Vijay Govindarajan.

Luckily for us the future doesn’t arrive in an instant – but unfolds seconds at a time.

Despite our organisational 2025 strategies, our five year forward views, it’s impossible to predict what our world looks like in the years ahead.

We are making, as Jason Fried has said, business guesses rather than business plans.

Launching a service or developing a new product against this ever shifting background is fraught with difficulty. What’s good for 2016 could be surplus to requirements a year later.

Today all our new services must be iterative and capable of scaling for mergers, growth and indeed for retraction and redundancy.  Designing for obsolescence is more important than ever. 

At Bromford Lab we’ve worked with our Insight team to give a tentative green light to a new service – and I think there are some lessons to learn. Tom Hartland gives an overview of our thinking here with an excellent slide deck showing the design process.

The concept is simple. Switch from being a reactive service (waiting for basic repairs requests) – and move to offering proactive coaching so people can do things for themselves. It’s aiming to tackle exactly the same things as many of our public services are: reducing demand by focusing on prevention rather than cure.

Lesson One: The test has been beset by implementation problems. 

As it should be. 

If you are launching anything new against the background of what could be legacy services and systems – it should be plagued by problems.

Expect lots of tiny failures. The worst thing you can do is to give up. Unfortunately many of our organisations, and certainly most of the media, do not think like this.  This is part of the re-education journey we need to take people on.

Lesson Two: The test hasn’t delivered tangible business benefits. Yet. 

So why are we recommending that it proceeds to pilot?

The answer to that is a mix of art and science. We have some evidence of potential success but we need a more detailed and longer term evaluation.

However not all insight can be gained through evaluation alone – but by picking up what futurists term ‘weak signals’.

Generally organisations are poor at picking up these signals. Arguably the fact that we are still talking about digital transformation demonstrates that the weak signals from the 1990’s onwards were largely unheard.

There are a number of signals that we are picking up at Bromford that – if correct- means our concept could have a very positive future. With time there’s a possibility of substantial financial returns – alongside fulfilling our strategic objective of growing customer skills and aspirations.

Here are a few of the things that we do, and don’t know about the future:

  • We have an ageing population with more people living on their own. We don’t know if this will have a positive or detrimental effect on future demand.
  • We know that driverless cars will soon be on the roads – drastically reducing transportation costs to get parts to our residents homes. We don’t know the speed of adoption.
  • We know the maker community – people using 3D printing and other self manufacture tools – is growing. We don’t know whether this will ever move beyond a niche and into the mainstream.
  • We know artificial intelligence – think Siri and Amazon Alexa – is rapidly advancing. We don’t know whether AI advice and coaching delivered through technology or a robot will ever be a good enough alternative to physical delivery.
  • We know housing associations are unlikely to be flooded with lots of public money in the future. We don’t know what future welfare reforms look like.

Putting all of these things together alongside the evidence we do have is persuasive enough to take the test to a next level.

None of us can predict the future – but we can attempt to second guess it. And the best way to do that is by low-cost experiments to test the unknowns, before gambling any big money.

Ultimately our organisations will succeed by exploring these weak signals – abandoning them as they fade or focussing investment when they get stronger.

The only choice is whether to be an active participant in what the future looks like or just let it relentlessly unfold around you.


4 thoughts on “Using Weak Signals To Determine Your Future Organisation

  1. I’ve sent most of my career trying to help institutions adapt to change, and the truth is it’s a really hard job. People get to the top of organisations because they are good at doing things a particular way, and they see no need to change that way when they get to the pinnacle. Anyone who steps back from the day-to-day and looks around them can see the reality of change in every aspect of their life, and yet most organisations are still run as if nothing ever changes. And major changes are never accepted until they are inevitable, it is too late to shape them, and they are bound to cause pain and negative disruption. It is much easier to stop doing something than it is to radically change the way you do it, and that is what is happening in most of our public services as austerity bites. And yet people still need services.

    We need to change training cultures and organisational mindsets so that they embrace change, shape it and turn it into opportunity, rather than seeing it as a threat to what people do now and something to be resisted.

    1. Thanks John – more I look at this I think it’s very different skill sets and behaviours. As Govindarajan has written – managing the present and inventing the future need different but complementary leaders.

  2. This is very interesting. Hate to use the word ‘narrative’ but it fits so well. I’m talking small startup not international corporate scale here, so hands on and able to act. We have even at this scale a whole narrative/industry of business planning which seeps into so much of what we try to do as ‘entrepreneurs’ (internal or independent). Most startup funding is predicated on this model. You have to ‘prove’ your idea via the plan and often some BS Dragons Den pitching nonsense. It’s about risk and the need for control.

    Yet anyone who has walked the talk knows as soon as the pitch or the plan is finished you’re already needing to shift and respond to so many tiny and massive external demands and ‘learns’. We need a fresh narrative where smart, agile shifts based on learns and instinct (much underrated) are prioritised and encouraged.

    Do you need different mindsets I dunno. I’d say you can’t disentangle the need to manage the now and the need to invent the future. They are related because the learns from the now contribute massively to the constant re-invention of the future … and back again, because the future powers the action now.

    1. Dave, please don’t be shy of using the word narrative, or maybe even “story” might be better. I think we need to tell stories about where we want to be. Most people’s context is the here and now, and they don’t have a framework for thinking about the future. I wrote about this 3 years ago and my thinking has moved on since then to considering how we get people to understand the story of where they will be in 10 or 20 years. Business Plans don’t come anywhere near doing the job.

      I had a conversation the other day about why we can’t use clients’ smiles as a measure of success. This was in the context of social care services, but could be applicable in other settings. I think smiles are a much better measure of success than some of the phoney indicators the evaluation industry comes up with.

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