Using Weak Signals To Determine Your Future Organisation

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“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.

Originally published at paulitaylor.com on September 30, 2016.

Written by

Innovation Coach and Co-Founder of @BromfordLab. Follow for social innovation and customer experience.

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