How to Identify Weak Signals Before They Become Strong Trends?

“Interpreting weak signals into useful decision-making takes time and focus. It starts with the capacity of identifying them in the first place”. 

Weak signals are first symptoms or early signals of a change telling about a strengthening trend and bringing information that is not yet seen e.g. in statistics. Usually, there are several signals indicating to a similar development. Weak signals have to pass filters in order to influence the strategy process, being the phenomena that influence a company and its operational environment by being new and surprising in the framework of the receiver. 

Weak signals reveal threats and opportunities for a company, but also represent a chance to learn, grow and develop. They could also be defined wild cards that change the development and are unpredictable when turning up. Weak signals are events below the surface, overlooked, but that may be signs of big evolution. The approach to weak signals is experiencing a renaissance in strategic planning and they are to be found in the context of strategic flexibility of an organization. Successful organizations look for weak signals actively and continuously. As decision-making is a sense-making process, management has to secure the flow of knowledge from outside to the business and decide the actions based on it.

A weak signal has no history and no basis to build a pattern onto. They are unique, and not recurring. A weak signal can be recognized by its strangeness and its being an odd phenomenon. In order to be able to recognize weak signals one has to have a sufficient level of understanding firstly in that behind each change there are several driving factors and on the other hand by the fact that each emerging fact signals its environment in many different ways. No signals should be rejected in advance. The recognition, analysis and interpretation of each signal are only work processes that follow the creative and unbiased observation period.

In general, possible identification and interpretation methods of weak signals are: Think-tank groups, brainstorming, Delphi method, or a pattern management framework, which means collecting signs of weak signals from magazines, mainly economically related. General observations from one’s surroundings and environment are another way of identifying weak signals.

In the analysis of weak signals, it is useful to take into consideration at least the following: 

– To whom and for whom weak signals are identified? 

– How comprehensive/wide is the search area and fields? 

– How complete is the analysis?

The identification process of weak signals occurs before or simultaneously with an identification of trends. In a Delphi-study, experts must decide when a phenomenon should be defined as a weak signal. Challenges occur, when weak signals are not searched in right places or enough (detection filter). This is also the case when right persons are not looking for them (interpretation filter). Another challenge could be that discovered findings or made interpretations are invalidated or denied (power filter). To succeed in the identification, the identifier of weak signals should have a position or forum where to tell about opinions and impressions freely. The organization in question should be receiving and the environment should enhance creativity.

Most issues change very slowly while some are expected to change fast and very radically. Others are expected to remain always the same. Surprises may come from foreseeable sources that change slowly (e.g. China phenomenon, virtual technology, globalization and EU-integration). Common issues that may face surprising changes are the importance of home, the conception of time, importance of salary or money, ownership and ethics.

Pattern management (Kuosa 2010) suggests that the existence of phenomena is concluded in the same way as the existence of black holes or planets of near-by solar systems by observation of refraction of light, changes in the orbits of near-by planets, quantity and movement of energy etc. It uses the same way that also phenomena in our own operation environment can be concluded. There clearly exists information and signals in our environment that belong together and can be clustered. Several phenomena can rise from one observation. Phenomenon emerges through signal observation.


1.Totally unexpected

Observation is not linked to any other known clear trend

2. Changes in trends

Observation indicates a change in trends

3. Drivers of change

Phenomenon that leads to an observation or has a legal commission

4. What keeps us in the old?

Trends, mega trends and main stream

Figure: Four-step observation frame for weak signals (Source: Tuomo Kuosa). 

Weak signals are a continuous or non-stop process which should be taken seriously in any sector of business. The anticipation phase shows the opportunities of the future and helps in minimizing risks. The appropriation phase is where strategies are made by realizing how the future might affect the community in question. In the action phase, changes of the future and effects of chosen policies and operations are carried out in practice. As an example – although it might seem that e.g. the financial sector is static, there are always changes taking place, and these changes are caused by the actions of human beings not only in the industry itself, but by everyone who is somehow involved in the financial sector. A bank itself would be no bank without investors, loan takers, private persons keeping their money on their account etc. This is why the financial sector is as vulnerable as any other industry, and should respond to the market in a similar way as any other sector of business. 

(Pfeffer, J. & Sutton, R.I. 2000. The Knowing-Doing Gap. How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action. Boston: Harvard Business School Press;Kamppinen, M., Kuusi, O., Söderlund, S. 2002. Tulevaisuudentutkimus. Perusteet ja sovellukset. Senior, Barbara and Fleming, Jocelyne, 2006. Organizational Change. 3rd Edition. FT Prentice Hall; Kuosa, T. 2012. The Evolution of Strategic Foresight – Alternative Futures).





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