The Value of Weak Signals

The best way to understand, what is, and what is the value of a Weak Signal is to look at what can happen when they’re downplayed or outright dismissed. I’ll start with a story from outside the food industry that carries a striking lesson on the fragility of being a market leader and the speed at which disruptive innovation can transform an industry. The main character: Blockbuster Video.

In 2004, Blockbuster was at its prime since its founding in 1985, with 60,000 retail locations and over 9,000 employees. They had become the de facto name in video rental and the company’s fortunes seemed like they’d go on forever, at least internally. In 1999, Reed Hastings opened the "doors” on an online DVD rental and streaming video startup called Netflix. Not until 2004—their banner year—did Blockbuster launch a competing DVD-by-mail service, which ultimately floundered, and the company subsequently declared bankruptcy in 2010.

That same year, Netflix had racked up nearly 30 million monthly subscribers worldwide and remains today as the new de facto name in streaming video entertainment. This story is about the media industry, but there’s an example in every industry of a “Blockbuster" and a “Netflix" fighting for relevancy in the midst of market disruption. There are many lessons one can draw from this story, but the most valuable one is the importance of Weak Signals. 

A Weak Signal is a small piece of information that at first glance, isn’t clearly impactful to a situation, but when amplified, provides powerful insight into the future. The value of a Weak Signal is the fact that it is weak, as once a trend or technology becomes more established, it is often too difficult to truly deal with it. Business leaders can have the natural tendency to dismiss an idea in the market until it’s becomes more of a "sure-thing," which frequently puts companies at risk of being too late to the game. This is especially true for industries, like food, that are typically capital intensive and slower to move. 

Knowing how to find and amplify Weak Signals prepare your organization to move with the changing tides—or even shape them—instead of just trying to stay afloat in the midst of them. In fact, Weak Signals are even more important for larger organizations to pay attention to, as they will need more time to steer the ship in the face of upcoming opportunity or danger. Weak Signals are glimpses into the future and when properly examined, can help your company avoid “Blockbuster Moments” and actually thrive in a rapidly changing environment. 

Finding Weak Signals

Weak Signals are everywhere. For Blockbuster, one of the many Weak Signals in the early 2000s was in the fact that broadband speeds were beginning to improve to the point that streaming video could be ubiquitous. In food, Weak Signals bubble up in farmer’s markets with upstart food entrepreneurs, in Silicon Valley food-tech startups, and in urban farms from Brooklyn. There will always be more noise than signal in the marketplace, and only a handful of the weak signals will ever become strong ones. So the trick in finding them is to cast a wide, smart, net and have a process to efficiently amplify/filter the signals you find (more on that below).

Before you begin scanning for weak signals, you must know what you’re looking for. A rule of thumb to determine if an idea is a Weak Signal worth investigating is to ask yourself is: “does this idea have reasonable potential in the next 10 years to impact a behavior, technology, or company in my company’s universe?” Don’t pass too much judgment at this phase, as you want to keep an open mind. Some mildly tangential signals may actually impact your business significantly once you amplify them. 

Here are a few ways to gather great Weak Signals:

  • Human Sensor Networks: People 'in the know' are the best kind of sensor to spot weak signals. These are the individuals who are deep in their subject matter on a daily basis and can best help detect when something is happening ever so slightly outside of the status quo. Identify a group of people who you can trust from a wide variety of disciplines, both inside and outside of the food industry. Find ways to codify your relationships with these individuals and create an ongoing dialogue where you can pick up on the weak signals that they’re seeing out in the world. Whether it be quarterly meet-ups, monthly Skype chats, or even an annual summit, creating your own human sensor network can and will give your company a truly unique information edge. 
  • Ethnographic Expeditions: Quantitative surveys and focus groups can be great for validating existing concepts (e.g., “do you prefer the blue box or the green box?”) but they’re much less valuable at helping you find the weak signals that breakthrough innovations are built on. Ethnographic research studies aim to find a smaller group of people to spend more, in-depth time with in order to find out what makes them tick. Ethnographies typically are focused on spending 1-2+ hours with one or two people at a time, in-person, in the real world, paying attention to not only what they say, but what they do and what they don’t say. The goal here isn’t to have someone validate your own assertions, but to keep an open mind and really try to listen to what’s going on in someone’s life. Doing this right means you’ll understand people (and how they use/don’t use your products) on a much deeper level and hopefully discover latent needs that your competitors aren’t looking at. 
  • Social Media Monitoring: Choose the people, ideas, and keywords that excite/scare you most and create lists & saved searches on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. to keep a running dashboard on what’s happening. This is the most cost effective way to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s going on. And if you build in the habit of quickly checking a dashboard of the ideas that mean the most to you on social media, you’ll start to form an instinct for when new, weak signals begin to emerge. From there, you’ll have the raw materials to amplify them and decide if you want to pursue further.

Amplifying & Interpreting Signals

Finding the Weak Signals is just the beginning. Knowing how to amplify them into a strong signal and interpret the possible meanings is the next, crucial step. We at Studio Industries have a framework for quickly and efficiently amplifying weak signals, which I’ll walk you through below.

To further help,  download our sample framework worksheet and a blank framework worksheet for your own use that’ll assist you and your team in the amplification process. 

The Signals Amplification Framework: a step-by-step guide:

  1. Using one of the “Finding Weak Signals" methods above, compile a list of weak signals that you deem interesting. 
  2. Sort each of your weak signals into one of the following three signal types, based on their relevance: behavioral, technology, competitor. These correspond to the rows of the amplification worksheet.
  3. The Now, Next, & Later columns on the worksheet signify the state of your weak signal as it stands Now (0-3 year range), Next (3-5 year range), and Later (5-10 year range). More on how we use this in a few steps. 
  4. Pick one weak signal and write it in the “Now” column of a framework worksheet, in the row that corresponds to the signal type you chose. You can see in the example I’ve chosen “Alternative Proteins” as a weak technology signal. 
  5. Staying in the “Now” column, fill in the boxes for the two remaining signal types that are currently blank. In my example worksheet, where I added “Alternative Proteins” to the technology row, I’ll need to make an assumption about the Behavior and Competitive force that may accompany something like Alternative Protein Technology. Ask yourself, “how would people behave differently if they could eat proteins that came from things other than animals?” for Behavior, and “what kind of competitor company exists to produce alternative proteins?” for Competitive. You should now have a fully filled out “Now” column.
  6. Building off of your completed “Now” column, extrapolate each of the Behavior, Technology, and Competitive ideas into the “Next” and “Later” columns. Think about how each of those signal types could evolve over time and fill in your ideas in the appropriate columns. 
  7. As you extrapolate into the “Next” and “Later” columns, try a few scenarios where the original “Now” signal could: a) become wildly successful, b) ultimately fail, or c) succeed at a modest level and become a niche thing. 

Once you’ve filled out a framework worksheet—and you should try to fill out as many as you can in a reasonable amount of time—take a step back and assess how well prepared your company is to deal with the Behavioral, Technological, and Competitive shifts that you’ve just laid out. If you’ve successfully amplified a weak signal into a stronger one you should be able to see how impactful the weak signal is to your business. 

Use the framework to spark a discussion with your team and ask: How does my world look different if this behavior/technology/competitor becomes mainstream? How prepared is my company to evolve along the lines of where this weak signal is headed, if successful? What would my company need to start doing now in order to best compete in a world where the “Next” and “Later” columns are true? Would my company be in trouble, or would we be in a position to thrive? It’s in these questions that your team can begin to discover how to best prepare for the future of what’s to come. 

The Cloudy Crystal Ball

There’s no such thing as a true crystal ball, and the Weak Signals method certainly doesn’t purport to give you such powers. However, I like to think of this process as a way to make a crystal ball just slightly less cloudy. While you won’t get a surefire script for the future, you’ll definitely get a glimpse of what could come and have a reasonable head start to prepare yourself. At the very least, the mere act of you and your team seeking, amplifying, and interpreting weak signals will naturally create a stronger culture of innovation. The results are bound to follow if the process is put into place.  

Above all, realize that the keys to making this exercise work aren’t necessarily the frameworks above or otherwise. The key is to foster a sense of curiosity, self-awareness, and humility within your teams as you imagine where these weak signals can go in the future. That’s the value of this framework and the start of realizing the value of Weak Signals. The time and effort required to imagine and explore the future can be dwarfed by the potential profit—or loss—connected with successfully reading or willfully ignoring a Weak Signal today. 

Even in today’s fast moving world, nothing happens overnight. Weak Signals can help show us the general direction the world is moving toward before we actually get there. But for those who aren’t looking beyond what’s already a "big thing,” massive change can feel like it comes at the blink of an eye.