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The Trend Forecaster’s Handbook: Identifying Weak Signals

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15 August 2019

Author: Martin Raymond

Image: Issho, by Pauline van Dongen

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The second edition of our co-founder, Martin Raymond's book focuses on turning the trends of the future into profitable solutions.

The weak shall inherit the earth despite what Darwin tells us. More to the point, it is only by studying the weak that we understand how strong a trend or a new market disruption may become. By ‘weak’, I mean weak signals: faint voices or shifts in the culture that suggest a new movement is on the rise, a new head wind about to buffer retail, re-interpret health, disrupt tradition or reduce waste.   

In this interpretation, a weak signal can be a peer-to-peer platform that creates nascent retail models, re-invents aperitif culturedisrupts notions of coupledom, or even offers us new ways to save on materials when despatching packaged goods.

But it can also be a negative as well as a positive attribute, as I outline in my book,
The Trend Forecaster’s Handbook. Climate change denial, the rise of the far right or the backlash against the MMR vaccine by parents were all, at one point or another, weak signals that became very firm and arguably dangerous movements or shifts in consciousness that few of us gave much thought to when they were in their early stages.
 

We usually ignore them because of our biases – explicit or tacit – rather than because of our lack of knowledge. The world, after all, is awash with data. This bias barrier, or bias trap, was first noted by behavioural psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, who described it as an  aversion bias in some cases (that is, a brand that refuses to recognise shifts in the market because it cannot imagine a future without it – Kodak, Blockbusters, Borders books), or an expectancy bias in others whereby observers or researchers expect to find evidence of a weak signal that will confirm their intuition or market decision and stick with it, despite a host of other weak signals that would suggest the opposite. Car brands, alcohol brands and food brands are particularly susceptible to doing this. Consider the car industry’s continued promotion of hybrids, the alcohol sector’s slowness to embrace CBD products or no-col spirits, and the food industry coming late to the no-meat, plant-based debate.

The Trend Forecaster’s Handbook
'We can do this by scanning our own industries, as well as parallel and unconnected sectors (far more important) 24/7, for those weak signals that herald tomorrow’s new opportunities.'

But we are susceptible to many other biases. Confirmation bias, herd bias, gender bias, even evidence and anchoring bias, whereby we are persuaded by peer thinking, or company thinking, despite the evidence showing up on all the monitors we deploy to detect weak signals in the first place.

Tobacco companies did this when vapes first appeared, drinks companies when non-drinking Generation Zers arrived, retail with online shopping, or global corporations with the birth of gig-thinking and co-work entrepreneurialism. All were outflanked because they ignored the fact that the weak don’t just become strong, they end up running or ruining your company.

That is why it is worth understanding the origins of the phrase in the first place. It was coined originally by Igor Ansoff in the 1970s. Ansoff was an applied mathematician who realised that failures in strategic thinking and in organisations (note that) happened because they overlooked weak, sometimes difficult-to-detect, signals that sat outside their acceptable bandwidth, or for that matter, their sector.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb suggests something similar in his metaphor about the Black Swan – the fabled swan or natural anomaly that most Australians know to be real. Because it is so rare, in Europe at least, we dismissed it as a fiction or a mythical presence until it came home to roost by confounding our beliefs and mangling our businesses – the 2007/2008 global financial crisis.  

While Black Swan signs, because of their rarity and anomalous behaviour, may be harder to detect, we can keep our organisations, or our forecasting teams for that matter, in a state of perpetual hyper-vigilance (PHV). We can do this by scanning our own industries, as well as parallel and unconnected sectors (far more important) 24/7, for those weak signals that herald tomorrow’s new opportunities. 

But this must be done as part of our horizon one game plan, rather than horizon three or four, which is the usual way clients in hard-pushed markets like to do it, if indeed they do it at all. Simply put, weak signals are storm warnings from tomorrow, and read with the right tools, and segregated from our personal, corporate or social prejudices, they are the seeds with which we can grow and cultivate new markets.

Read badly, or refracted through the prism of short-termism, me-too product ideas or what seem like measured corporate hesitancies (for that, read prejudices), they are the very Black Swans that loom large and bite us in the arse.

So look at your business, identify how you monitor weak signal activity and the number you have detected over the past week. Is it five, 10, 15? If you’re answer is less than 100, your arse must be very sore indeed, your business in trouble and your R&D pipeline a truncated hose of spluttering hopelessness. 

This is the final lesson to be learned about weak signals – they aren’t finite. Like the weather or Trump’s tweets, they are ongoing, relentless, ubiquitous and inevitable. And you have to monitor and respond to them as such. When I hear a client say (as I have many times) that they only want X amount of trends or that their team can only cope with three anomalies at a time (I kid you not), then I know that they are failing to understand the nature of weak signal monitoring, are awash with biases, and are about to get a very rude awakening indeed from a very large, vicious and completely unforgiving Black Swan. The solution is simple: monitor, bite first and turn that swan into a cooked goose that can be sold at a premium.
 

Martin Raymond is co-founder of The Future Laboratory. You can order a signed copy of his latest book, The Trend Forecaster’s Handbook, below.

The trend forecasters handbook

 

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