How to spot ‘weak signals’

One of the biggest problems with the current digital deluge is the tendency to no longer see what’s directly in front of us. The sheer amount of information now being passed around means that we’re becoming less able to filter what’s really important from what’s really not. Information is no longer power. Our deep and undivided attention is.

Constant digital distraction (which results in constant partial attention) also means that our concentration spans are shortening (or so they say) and our peripheral vision is narrowing. Throw in some headphones and things aren’t looking good, especially if you are seeking new opportunities or risks. This is because the early harbingers of forthcoming upheaval and disruption are often hidden in tiny snippets of seemingly trivial information or obscured in plain sight in the shadows and auditory obfuscations of our everyday existence.

So how can you spot these ‘weak signals’ or other forerunners of change? How can you spot things that don’t tend to announce themselves in huge data sets? How can you mine for insights in research groups when you don’t know exactly what you are looking for?

The answer is to develop a mind-set that’s always looking for these things. You need to become more attuned to instinct and gut feelings. You need to become furiously curious. You need constantly look for things that are new and might represent a shift in how things are seen or done. But to do this you need to unfreeze and then re-set your mind-set towards deep looking and deep listening.

You also need to go to where anomalies initially emerge, which tends to mean the edges or fringes of established markets and thinking. This might be young minds or it could be academic institutions or upstart start-ups. It might even be passionate users of particular products and services (‘super-users’) or particular places where being different or quirky is seen as being culturally useful or prestigious (California not North Dakota, although the urban fringes of Fargo might contain something, or someone, of interest).

Or you can be lazy. Cultural change often procedes technological or regularly change, so become attuned to new currents in advertising, music and film. For example, I heard the lyric “Don’t go digital on me” in a song lyric the other day. Is that significant? Or there’s an ad on TV for a chocolate bar with the slogan “undivide your attention.” Again, significant?

Beyond anecdotes like these it’s rather difficult to be precise. After all, how can one explain what one’s looking for when one doesn’t really know what one is looking for and whatever it that you are looking for keeps changing the whole time? I think the answer to this is to accept that you will never fully know and to keep looking regardless.

This isn’t something that’s ad hoc. You cannot create a ‘search party’ that looks for weak signals for a week and is then disbanded. It’s something that’s continuous and the activity will suit some personality types more than others.

Let me give you a few more examples. I was in Brooklyn, New York, recently. I was in a hotel lift and someone (I’m assuming not a graffiti artist) had written “Lonely together” in huge white letters on the glass panel inside the elevator. Why was it there? What did it mean? It could have been a subliminal ad for a TV show of the same name or perhaps it meant something more?

Or how about a few years ago when Google bought Zagat, the publisher of local restaurant guides (published on paper). This made no sense. Why would an online publisher (sorry, tech company) buy someone that puts ink on dead trees? Could it be that they were interested in local expertise or search or did they see a role for paper in a digital world? (come to think of it, why did Google send me summaries of my Google Adwords campaign in a posted letter – on paper?). Question anything that doesn’t make sense or doesn’t fit an established pattern. To invert a popular schooldays phrase: question every answer.

Of course, if you start frequenting the fringes you will inevitably bump into some fairly fringe people. Some will be weird, quite possibly annoying and probably of no use whatsoever. But don’t judge these people too soon. Maybe they aren’t crazy. Maybe they are right, but just a little bit early. What’s thought of as weird, crazy or just plain impossible one moment has a habit of becoming conventional wisdom over time. So, button your lip and keep your mainstream prejudices and cynicism to yourself. For example, there are ‘tech hermits’ living off-grid in rural North America. Some of these people claim that the use of mobile phones and Wi-Fi has made them sick. I had a boss once that carried a business card that read “Maybe they’re right” printed on the reverse. Maybe he was right.

This is the opened minded mind-set you’re after and it’s a mind-set that can equally be applied to reading newspapers, looking at webpages or talking to strangers on the subway. (Do you do that? Why not? Expand your network and experiences). Keep asking yourself why someone is saying something? What’s behind a story or opinion? What do they want? What’s their interest here? Are they alone in thinking or doing this?

Also, be aware that you (and everyone else) sees the world and everything in it through a lens hand-crafted from personal experience. What you need are interchangeable lenses. You need one that’s for narrow close ups and another for wide big picture panoramas.

And be aware that you will suffer from a number of notable cognitive biases too, most significantly confirmation bias. These biases seek to close our minds by persuading us (usually subconsciously) that what we are seeing aligns with things we’ve already seen or things we already think or believe. In other words, we tend to frame things in a particular way based upon what we’ve experienced before. You need to be aware of this and fight against it if you are to discover anything that vaguely resembles objective reality.

A more recent example of a weak signal. Why are twenty-somethings buying old tech? For example, what’s behind the re-birth of vinyl and why are so many people, including smart people that work in Silicon Valley and for MI5 (allegedly), using what might be called dumb-phones over smart- phones? Are the two things possibly connected? You can figure this one out yourself, but you might need to switch your smart-phone off to do this.

One final thought. Liberate yourself from the false precision of numbers. Weak signals are, by definition, weak. They are fuzzy, unclear and indistinct. They represent small numbers of people (sometimes just one person) bravely thinking about the world in a different way or doing things somewhat differently from almost everyone else. You cannot put meaningful numbers around these people to ‘prove’ that they are significant. If you can prove it it’s a trend (or possibly a fad or counter-trend) it no-longer represents a weak signal. Got it?

Paul J.H . Shoemaker and George S. Day, ‘Making sense of weak signals’, MIT Sloan Management Review, Spring 2009,
Paul J.H. Shoemaker and George S. Day, ‘Scanning the Periphery’, Harvard Business Review, November 2005.
Martin Harrysson, Estelle Metayer and Hugo Sarrazin, ‘The strength of weak signals’, McKinsey Quarterly, February 2014.

Could we walk away from the internet or give up our devices?

I’ve thought about putting this thought into the ether before, but I’m all too aware of confirmation bias and the fact that what I’m about to say might be the future I want rather than the future that is unfolding. I’m also far too aware of the words of the writer Douglas Adams, who said that: “anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.”

So, I’m being cautious. Nevertheless, I’m becoming aware of a rising tide of discontent regarding Big Tech, social media and smartphone use. A number of people I’ve met recently are also starting to articulate a future with no internet in it or at the very least a future where we have a significantly altered and re-balanced relationship with the internet and our devices.

Exhibit 1. A London lawyer in his twenties that I met last week could foresee a time when people become so disillusioned with the internet, smart phones and social media that they drift away from it. Key issues for him were data security, individual privacy and a lack of censorship with regard to unacceptable material (e.g. easy access of pornography by young kids with smartphones at school).

Exhibit 2. I forecast a Big Tech Backlash two years ago and it appears on my map of megatrends published back in May. I was in Silicon Valley a few weeks ago and while I’m used to reading articles about Facebook being the anti-Christ there was a fairly hostile opinion piece about Google in the US edition of Wired magazine of all places. There was also an article about throwing technology out of younger years education in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Exhibit 3: I’m starting to see words like ‘addition’ being used on an almost daily basis in relation to digital technology.

Exhibit 4: The attitudes and behaviour of Uber recently/generally.

Exhibit 5: The fact that owning the latest smart phone isn’t cool in parts of Silicon Valley. (see also the popularity of ‘dumb phones’).

Exhibit: 6: UK schools starting to end their ‘do as you want/anything goes’ policy regarding the use of technology on school premises. One school I know personally has gone as far as banning pupils from using mobiles during the day. iPad hysteria in educational circles also seems to have died down.

Exhibit 7: Remember e-cards? Exactly. They were the future a decade ago, but it eventually dawned on us that digital can be sterile and characterless while analogue can be sensory. People are sending me handwritten cards again. Also witness the re-birth of vinyl records, paper books and fountains pens. Sending someone an e-card for Xmas might be convenient or cheap, but it can signify that you too are cheap and can’t be bothered to invest time or effort in a relationship. Can deep human needs and desires trump convenience or price?

It should be noted here (because it rarely is) that digital and physical are different on many levels. It’s not so much embracing the one and rejecting the other (a rather binary outlook) but rather working out which is better in a particular context or circumstance.

Exhibit 8: If digital tech is so great why do so many senior people working for companies like Apple and Google send their kids to schools like the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, where there’s virtually no computer to be found? Schools such as this one are increasingly arguing that computers and learning don’t mix well, diminishing attention, inhibiting creativity, and weakening human relationships. This might please Eric Schmidt at Google, who once said, ‘I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something.’ (See exhibit 6).

Exhibit 9: The behaviour of teens. Filters on Instagram are becoming passe. Facebook is dead in the water in developed markets and back in schools smart kids are revising using paper cards because, as one explained to me: “you remember things better.”

Exhibit 10: Not an exhibit, but an idea. There are surely events that could radically reshape the digital landscape. What if Google or Facebook were redefined as publishers rather than technology platforms, for example? What if they were regulated in exacatly the same way as a newspaper or TV station? What if they were viewed as monopolies and broken up? Or what if Google simply decided to charge a cent for every search? The biggest vulnerability beyond all this, it seems to me, is simply that the ad model breaks down. Take advertising away and a significant chunk of the internet simply ceases to exist.

These are minor and largely anecdotal examples, but worth watching all the same.

BTW, one thing that isn’t being commonly discussed, surprisingly, is the idea that the data that many tech companies create value from is our data, stolen from us largely without our explicit consent. (oh please, you think people really read those terms and conditions?)