Envisioning the Future
The Weak Signal® Research Model

by James B. Smethurst

[Editor's Note: The Weak Signal® Research model was developed by Matt Taylor and presented at the Weak Signal Research Workshop held in Hilton Head, SC, on May 21-22. This article addresses the first phase of the model in such a way that it will be accessible to those who did not attend the Workshop. Other articles will follow that will develop the path of the enterprise through the second phase.]

Weak Signal Development
You are interested in starting a business. You enjoy the business world and you are fairly adept at working its intricacies to your advantage, but you have no idea what kind of business to start, or even how to start it. You begin by talking to people--people in big business, people in small business, people who started businesses and people whose businesses failed. They tell you all sorts of stories and give you enough conflicting advice that you think you would have been better off locking yourself in a room to come up with ideas. You stop for a moment, though, and think back to all of the interactions you have just had. What could you learn from that? Well, one woman you talked to at lunch had to take her shoes off to relax her feet. One man couldn't turn his head to the left because of a sore muscle in his neck. Another man fidgeted during the entire conversation. One woman complained of a sore back. And then there was the man who had to chew on tablets all day to ease his ulcer. You begin to see a pattern--business is a stressful business to be in, and over time, it begins to wear many people down. This observation sparks your interest. "How can I make this work for me?"

So you go on a quest, and delve into the wonderful world of stress and stress relief. You read some medical journals that tell you about the various effects of stress on the human body: from ulcers, to heart problems, to aches and pains, to a gradual weakening of the entire immune system. You read psychological journals about the causes of stress. You read about Eastern philosophies and healing practices. You get a massage. You talk to massage therapists. You talk to their clients. You visit a holistic learning center. You talk to M.D.s about stress and stress reduction, as well as medicine in general. You give acupuncture a try. You talk to small business owners about the costs of health care for their employees. You visit a chiropractor. You scan the newspaper and magazines for references to stress and relaxation, and you begin to notice when those issues are present in the subject matter but the articles ignore them. And, of course, you look up statistics about stress related illnesses, about the numbers of people using alternative health measures, about the effectiveness of different treatments for different conditions.

At the end of this research, you find yourself confronted with a tremendous amount of data, but you already see certain patterns developing in this vast assortment of facts, statistics and experiences. As you piece together this data, more and more patterns present themselves: "holistic" healing has been around for millennia, but it is becoming more popular in the US; acupuncture, massage and chiropractics are all growing in popularity; stress is a large part of today's world (as you discovered earlier); the health care system in the US cannot handle the growing number of health problems from which Americans are suffering; Western medicine is beginning to acknowledge some benefits from Eastern healing practices. These are but a few of the possible patterns you have discovered in the results of your research.

Now you sit down to really dig into them, to compare them, to see if and how they relate to each other. As you see larger and larger trends, you trace them back historically and see that their roots go back 30, 50, even thousands of years. The emergent trend that you discover seems to be this: The stress of today's increasingly unstable business world not only wears down a population that is becoming more aware of the damaging effects of stress, but also costs businesses more and more money as they try to support a failing medical establishment. As you now project these trends forward into the future, you discover that the rate of change in the business world will only increase and if businesses go about their business in the same ways, the level of stress in t he business world will increase as rapidly as the rate of change. As more people are subjected to higher levels of stress, they will only become more aware of the damaging effects of stress, and at some point, they will refuse to be subjected to it. The system will self-destruct. It will self-destruct unless businesses change the way they do business. At some point, simply to survive, businesses will HAVE to design new ways of doing business that will reduce the levels of stress to which their employees are subjected.

This discovery startles you, but it makes sense in light of all of the research you have done. Now, what can you do with THIS information? You reason that at some point businesses will change, and the focus of this change will be on ways of reducing stress in the workplace. What if you created a company whose specialty was reducing stress in the workplace? Create a company that understands the stresses of a business environment and helps employees and employers understand those stresses, work around them, and alleviate if not eliminate stress from business. How could you do this? You could set up a stable of massage therapists, chiropractors, and holistic healers who were also fluent in the workings of the business world. This stable could be deployed into businesses that asked for their help to work with them to understand their own conditions and then design with them ways of working that minimized stress. Initial stages of this deployment would focus on the individual: demonstrate to the employees the benefits of reduced stress by giving them access to massages and other methods of relaxation; demonstrate to the employers the advantages of a work force that was not crippled with stomach, heart, liver, back, neck and general immune problems. Also demonstrate the long term benefits of reduced stress, including longevity, greater all around health, more energy, more focus, and general happiness. Once the business accepts these principles, you can work with them to restructure themselves to reduce stress on a more permanent basis, perhaps even using people from your stable as more permanent practitioners for the business. You have now constructed a rough plan for your business.

Now you must see if it could work, and for that you renew your research. Do any companies like this already exist? How did they do it? What aren't they doing? Who do you know who could help you create your business? What healers, massage therapists, or chiropractors? Where could you get financial backing? Who would your clients be? Is there anyone you already know who might be interested in this service? And as you research, you look again at the data you originally collected and look for any new trends you might have missed the first time. You are now looking at this information through new eyes, since you now have the experience of this deployed healing service as a vantage point from which to look. Seeing this information from a different vantage point, you also use it to refine and iterate your business model.

Satisfied with your research and your model of this business, it is time to test it. You begin to gather together healers for your stable. You patent your idea. You begin discussions with doctors and businesses to test the viability of this sort of service. You develop the logo and feel and general approach of this company. When finally a business owner invites you in, you deploy you new, active enterprise.

The Weak Signal Research Model
Imagine two jet fighters flying without radar. If they were flying on a collision course, they would not see each other until they had already crashed. Eyesight alone is not enough to warn the pilots of rapidly approaching danger. The pilots require a method of discovering weak signals (other airplanes that are out of normal sensory range) before those weak signals overtake them. In the case of airplanes, of course, radar serves as a method of weak signal research, but in today's rapidly changing world, how are we to detect the weak signals of today that will be tomorrow's dominant trends? How can we detect signals in society, technology and business that are not readily apparent to everyone, and how do we then capitalize on those emergent trends? Through a disciplined approach to Weak Signal Research, we can gain tremendous insight into the possibilities of the future. The example we just went through, while fictitious, can serve as a case study for our WSR model.

To familiarize ourselves with the various stages of the Weak Signal Research model, let us approach WSR through the lens of the Stages of an Enterprise model.

From the conception of an enterprise (its inception as an idea: "business is a stressful business to be in... 'How can I make this work for me?'") to its birth (its becoming real: deployment), there is much to be gained and also much to lose. Before its birth, an enterprise exists only in the realm of idea, of model, of prototype. It receives very little feedback from society and its viability cannot legitimately be tested until after its birth. Birth, then, represents the first major phase change in the Stages of an Enterprise model--a change from concept and prototype to the real organism [Three Cat Model]. This time before birth is vital to the viability of an enterprise. The enterprise must be gestated in such a way that it will develop the proper scope, will be sustainable and self-correcting, and will be anticipatory of future changes [Appropriate Response Model]. This is the realm of Weak Signal Research. If one can capitalize on an emergent trend that is just about to breach the threshold of mainstream awareness, one's enterprise will have a tremendous potential to boom. Weak Signal Research is vital to the early development stages of an enterprise, and it must be approached with both discipline and an open mind.

Here is the Weak Signal Research model:

Here is a look at the individual stages of the model and the glyphs that are associated with them:

Glyph Stage Activity
Search Strategy Search the environment for information related to the subject of your interest. Become aware of your own vantage point and your own biases so that you can allow yourself to think outside of the box.
Synthesis Strategy Synthesize the information you have taken in and notice patterns emerging.
Analysis Strategy Analyze the emerging patterns and interweave them into historical trends. Trace the trend back 30 or 50 years to its roots and then project it just as far into the future.
Design Strategy What can you do with this information? Design a model or prototype of a vehicle for capitalizing on the emergent trend that your analysis uncovered. Rapid iterations are crucial.
Observe/Explore Strategy (return to Search) Search the environment again through the filter of the model that you have created. How does the world look different than it did during your initial Search? How can you improve your model?
Viability Test Patent or publish. Grow your value web. Test your model for social or economic value. Prepare to bring your model into being.

Search Strategy The first step in Weak Signal Research is to design a Search Strategy. Weak Signals are imbedded in almost anything you see, read or experience. Your search of the environment can proceed in two ways: open or directed. In an open search, you first look into yourself to determine from what vantage point you are viewing the world. What are your assumptions? What do you understand to be important or impossible? What are your priorities in life? How do you see the world and humanity? What are the filters through which you see the world? "Know your noise!" In knowing your filters, you can choose to remove them for the purpose of broadening your Search. You do not have to eliminate your point of view or opinions, but for the sake of an open Search, removing your filters can be valuable. You can be open to possibilities that your personal perspective may not allow you to see. In a directed search, on the other hand, you leave your filters in place and Search the environment from your own personal perspective. In either case you will be searching among a vast assortment of "info-events" that will, as a whole, seem completely random. And whether directed or open, your search can use a number of different vehicles, each representing a different kind of strategy: syntopical readings, the World Wide Web, heuristics, dialogues with others, or simply driving home along a new route. All of these methods will present you with new information in new contexts that will allow you to search "out of the box" for Weak Signals.

Synthesis Strategy To elicit a pattern from the seeming chaos, you must move on to the second stage of WSR, that of designing a Synthesis Strategy. The once random "info-events" that you have been searching begin to coalesce into series and faint patterns. This will occasionally happen spontaneously, but a more structured approach often leads to more surprising, more interesting, and more efficacious results. Using models and metaphors as filters for information will often allow you to see patterns emerge where there were none. Brainstorming and mind-mapping will allow you to see the associations that perhaps you already made but of which you were not aware. This is the arena for the use of a "Zwicky Box", or Morphological Box, as well. In any of these approaches you will need to develop a pattern language that will allow you to discuss, dissect and utilize the ideas and patterns you are developing.

Analysis Strategy To proceed from the realm of potential patterns to that of documentable trends, you will need to design an Analysis Strategy. The goal of this stage is to identify the hidden trends that have led us to an aspect of today's world and to reconstruct and examine the history surrounding those trends. Determine what kinds of measures might be relevant to your trend and take measurements over the last fifty years or more. Plot them on a graph and analyze the curve pattern. Look for conditions or factors that amplify and attenuate your trend and trace their historical patterns. Examine other trends to see how they might relate to the trend that you have discovered. Interconnect and weave these nodes into patches and whole webs, and imagine where this web of trends is headed. As you look for trends, you will almost always find trails leading back 20, 30 or 50 years, trails that lead up to the seemingly novel events of today. Then continue your analysis by projecting these trends into the future another 20, 30 or 50 years.

Design Strategy Now, what can you do with this information? How can you capitalize on it? Here you must develop a Design Strategy to create a way to take advantage of the Weak Signal you have recognized. How can you capitalize on an opportunity or how can you counteract an emergent threat? In this stage you will engineer prototypes that will resolve the structural tension between your Identity and Vision [See the Creative Process model], and you will iterate them rapidly.

Observe/Explore Strategy With these prototypes in hand, you must now renew your search of the environment. Look with new eyes at your "info-events" from the Search stage, keeping in mind that you are not the same person that made the initial observations of these info-events--the process of discovering and analyzing emergent trends has altered your perception of the universe. Observe your model in the context of the larger environment, explore it further, and update it in light of new observations that you make.

Viability Test Once you have satisfactorily iterated your model/prototype, it is time to test its viability. You must design a strategy to test its social and economic value and its viability as an enterprise. Publish or patent it. Advocate it, network it, get people using it and get feedback. Create your ValueWeb™System and the community of people that you will need to bring this model into being as a viable enterprise. You are floating a trial balloon. You are testing the product and the market. You are about to discover how well your Weak Signal Research uncovered real trends in society. You are on the threshold of birth, of taking your creation from the womb of your private life into a large, cold world. The first phase transition of the Stages of an Enterprise model is upon you.

As you read through the first few stages of the model, you probably recognized that the example we used at the beginning actually represents TWO cycles of the WSR model. In the first cycle, the Search consisted of talking to numerous business people. The first Synthesis consisted of recognizing a pattern of stress among business people. The Analysis, though brief, allowed you to recognize that perhaps this pattern could represent a powerful trend. And you Designed the bare bones of a plan to create an enterprise that would capitalize on this trend. From there you began another Search and followed the model through another cycle, except that after observing your model the second time, you were satisfied that it could proceed without returning to another full Search-Synthesis-Analysis process. This demonstrates the recursive nature of this model, and it should also be noted that the Search mode is an ongoing process that continues throughout the WSR model and the Stages of an Enterprise model.

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iteration 3.5