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How to see opportunities that your competitors think are stupid. Do you suffer from ‘Weak Signal’ blindness?


If you have ever asked yourself, ‘Why didn’t I see that? It was right under my nose all the time’, you were experiencing an example of ‘Weak Signal Theory’.

We are constantly bombarded with ‘weak signals’. Some of them are genuinely weak, while others are weak because our brain has suppressed them. This automatic filtering of information is quite natural and designed to prevent sensory overload.

An example of such overload is found in autistic children who have difficulty concentrating. It is not that they cannot concentrate. Rather, they do not really know what to concentrate on, or how to screen out the ‘background noise’.

The reasons why business information is screened out or filtered in are varied.

For example, adverse financial pressure can make us ‘risk adverse’. In other words, we are afraid to take risks by trying new things. Therefore, we focus on what we know rather than on what could be.

One definition of insanity is doing what did not work in the past and expecting a different outcome.

Being successful in a certain strategy can equate to seeing no reason to change. But a truth in business is that you are always going forwards or backwards. If you try resting on your laurels, the latter (i.e. going backwards) is usually the outcome.

One example is General Motors and its progressively obsolete belief that its ‘gas guzzlers’ would always be in demand. When an idea is all yours, ego can prevent you from seeing other options. Slavishly sticking to a conventional wisdom, such as a published ‘industry best practice’ or historical behaviours, can give a blinkered view.

Chaos, opportunity and isolating weak signals

While striving for the best and maintaining quality is very important, it can also cause you to ignore other options and, ultimately, end up being indistinguishable from all your competitors.

There are clear parallels between this theory and Chaos Theory.

Chaos Theory does not really say that everything is chaotic, rather that we are surrounded by an ever changing maelstrom of data and information and that in this chaos patterns emerge and dissipate again.

We could say that we see the emergence of trends and even knowledge, but it is an ever changing view. Only smart individuals and companies who can spot the formation of these patterns in their embryonic state are able to use them to their advantage and profit.

To detect these weak signals we need to devise a strategy.

So, first, let us jot down some key points.

We need to:

  • Do something to cut down the background noise.
  • Be on the alert for the smokescreen that ‘conventional wisdom’ can create.
  • Develop techniques to ‘see the emerging patterns’ in the chaos which is information overload.
  • Adjust our attitude to seek success in unusual and marginalised ideas and opportunities.
  • Look for and expect the unexpected.

Criticism is sometimes expressed at this last statement.  You cannot anticipate what is unexpected, right?

This is true in one sense. But you can develop an open, enquiring way of thinking, which allows you to see ‘patterns’ as they start to emerge.

A great example of these sorts of concepts was found in a recent handwritten ‘rant’ produced by Frank Kern (an acknowledged internet marketing expert) on a recent US internal fight.

This note featured many inspiring ideas in his ten handwritten pages. One of those ‘blinding flashes of the obvious’ Frank had during that trip is as follows.

He noticed that all the First class seats were occupied, while there were significant numbers of empty seats in Coach class.

Why was that, in a time of financial crisis? He then formulated the great thought, “In this meltdown, the money has not gone. It has merely moved from one place to another.” So, the marketing message was clear and is embodied in this question: “Do you want to have fire sales and focus on selling to Coach, or offer high quality at a good price to First class?”

This was a perfect example of a ‘Weak Signal’ being there for anyone to see. However, it took something special, and definite sensitivity to the environment to spot it and then verbalise it.

Detecting and tuning in to ‘weak signals’

What can you do to detect these signals? Whether you are a company or an individual, just consider these possibilities:

  • Create a culture of change, reward risk taking (considered not stupid risk taking).
  • Encourage people to come up with new approaches, even way out approaches (often in less enlightened cultures, these would be called ‘stupid ideas’).
  • When an idea seems alien do not instinctively say, ‘No.’ Instead try, ‘Well that is not something I would do, but what if we could do that? What would be the advantages?’
  • Look for trends and patterns in everything, particularly unusual events.
  • Use techniques and software than can help you tune-in to the signals. (Like Mindjet MindManager software.)
  • Use visually based information handling techniques, which encourage pattern identification.
  • Use thematic and contextual assessment tools to reduce information overload. (These techniques help you screen large amounts of information and allow you to decide what needs special attention).

Above all, you need to learn how to ‘tune’ yourself and your organisation to pick up ‘weak signals’.

John England is Managing Director of training and management consultancy Mindsystems Pty Ltd, reseller of Mindjet MindManager software.  Twice, John has held the position of National Training Manager for multinational companies before starting his own company. He has also worked as a low power nuclear reactor chemist and nuclear submarine officer. Image by Tom T.