What are weak signals of change?

Knowing how to recognize weak signals of change—indications that changes may be taking place in milieus (e.g., social, political) that surround your business—will help your startup proactively adjust its strategy in view of these potential disruptions.

So what ARE weak signals of change?

  • Weak signals are simply data points that indicate significant change could be underway. They represent emerging issues that could plausibly affect your business model, operations or industry environment.
  • Weak signals are instances of change that are perceivable when you look beyond your core knowledge base and day-to-day business activities and into adjacent and peripheral spaces. Weak signals are new and surprising, and likely unknown or not taken seriously by your colleagues.

As a business decision-maker, identifying early signs of potentially disruptive change enables you to anticipate and adjust your strategic plans, rather than having to rush to react.
Weak signals that may initially be seen as a threat can transform into an opportunity to secure an advantaged position in the long term.

Use the STEEP framework

When you start scanning for weak signals of change, refer to the STEEP framework (below), which will help ensure you capture a wide breadth of signals. STEEP stands for social, technological, economic, environmental and political.

The social realm concerns what people do, say and feel, as well as their values, beliefs and opinions. Consider looking at:

  • Emerging news beats and human-interest threads
  • Underemphasized injustices and inequalities
  • Social unrest and emerging movements
  • Instances of conflict and public debate
  • Themes in the arts, humour, culture and subcultures

The technological domain focuses on scientific progress and innovation. Consider looking at patent filings, requests for proposals (RFPs), startup activity and scientific journals.

The economic domain centres around “the economy” as well as commercial activity in general. Consider looking at:

  • New business models and offerings
  • State of the labour market
  • Trends in financial services
  • Mergers, acquisitions and divestitures
  • Securities and markets
  • Currencies and other mediums of exchanging value

The environmental realm concerns the condition of the natural world, resource availability and waste streams, the risk and impact of natural disasters, and ecological and geological systems. Consider looking at:

  • Energy and material alternatives
  • Sustainability goals
  • Environment and climate change policy recommendations

The political domain has to do with governments and legislation. Consider looking at:

  • Regulatory frameworks
  • New tariffs, policies and barriers for business
  • Geopolitical stability
  • Public infrastructures in areas such as education, healthcare, finance, transportation and communications

Keep in mind that the STEEP categories are collectively exhaustive, not mutually exclusive. Weak signals don’t usually fit neatly into one category. The point of this framework is simply to nudge you to cover your bases with a balanced variety of signals.

by Robert Bolton