Friday, August 14, 2009

Picking Up Weak Signals

listeningHow do you pick up weak signals and make sense of them? In some cases we'd rather not pick them up at all. This goes for us personally ('what is being said about you?') and for companies ('who's talking about us and why?')

MIT Sloan Review ran a very interesting article on this topic: "How to make Sense of Weak Signals" by Paul Schoemaker and George Day (Spring 2009).

What is a weak signal anyway? Shoemaker and Day define it as:

A seemingly random or disconnected piece of information that at first appears to be background noise but can be recognized as part of a significant pattern by viewing it through a different frame or connecting it with other pieces or information.

I was surprised to read that "fewer than 20% of global companies have sufficient capacity to spot, interpret and act on the weak signals of forthcoming threats and opportunities." It would be nice to read some best-practices in this area. A general framework to make sense of weak signals is given in this article.

Shoemaker and Day say:

There are various individual biases that may cause managers to be taken unaware. In addition, there are organizational biases - such as groupthink or polarization - that may keep much of the periphery-dwelling enemy in the shadows, even in organizations with an active scanning process.

People and companies have difficulties coping with multiple pieces of evidence pointing in opposite directions. Or when crucial information is missing, "our minds naturally shape the facts to fit our preconceptions".

A very interesting remark made by the authors with respect to information and knowledge management is:

The organizational problems caused by dispersed memory and varying perceptions can only be overcome when information flows freely across departmental boundaries.

And sense making is rightly marked as a social process:

Organizational sense making occurs in a complex social environment in which people are not just sensitive to what is being said, but also to who is speaking. We judge both the signal and the source.

The authors gives nine proven approaches to reveal, amplify and clarify potential important weak signals. These approaches should be used in combined:

  1. Tap local intelligence. Relates well to "When Information is not the answer".
  2. Leverage extended networks. Ask questions!
  3. Mobilize search parties
  4. Test multiple hypotheses. "Managers often have limited tolerance for ambiguity and may be reluctant to devote additional time to develop alternative hypotheses to escape the trap of getting stuck on a simple, single view that is wrong."
  5. Canvass the wisdom of crowds
  6. Develop diverse scenarios
  7. Seek new information to "confront reality"
  8. Encourage constructive conflict. "There was no dissent. So, information never really traveled."
  9. Trust seasoned intuition

Good stuff! And very helpful. However, I was surprised this article did not point to several other sources, that also address weak signals. For instance:

  1. Jim Collins, Good to great. Collins says great companies continually confront themselves with the 'brutal facts'.
  2. Chris Argyris, Overcoming organizational defenses. Argyris talks about how corporate defense mechanisms work, also leading them to 'close their ears'.
  3. Dave Snowden's work on the Cognitive Edge/Cynefin framework and coping with complexity. It provides ways to make sense of complex, chaotic, knowable and known contexts.
  4. Malcolm Gladwell, Blink. Relating to the good and bad of trusting "seasoned intuition".

Anyway, how do you pick up and act upon weak signals?

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