The Hunt for Grey Swans — Top 15 Methods & Frameworks — #6 Weak Signals

Chasing Possibilities, Wild Cards and Extremes by Spotting the Small Things Before They Become Big Things

Grey Swan Guild
15 min readJan 22, 2024

Author: Sean Moffitt, Grey Swan Guild Founder and CEO, Cygnus Ventures

Weak signals are those glimmers of information that portend insight into an important developing trend. They are differentiated from strong signals in that they are less discernible indicators of the future, or disputed as a verifiable important trend.

Weak signals’ enemy, if there is one, is that today’s lie or illusion of certainty is loved because it comforts people. Weak signals can be ignored as they may be too hard to swallow or digest. Assuredly enough though, ignorance of today will be the downfall of tomorrow.

“Let no man despise the secret hints and notices of danger, which sometimes are given him, when he may think there is no possibility of it being real.” Daniel Defoe

Weak signals are the stuff of Grey Swan legend as they require acuity and skill to detect. They come at you splintered, unstructured, disguised, or encrypted, and thus are hard to capture, measure and validate. With them however, carry enormous early-mover potential and competitive advantages. They are the small things before coming bigger things.

Imagine if you could see the signal through the noise for terrorism on September 10th, 2001, not September 12th. Contemplate what you could do with the housing bubble weak signals in April 2008, months in advance of the subprime meltdown of August 2008. Wonder what the world might look like if Israeli border security had braced for early signals of the unimaginable on October 6th, 2023, not after them. This is the landscape of weak signals.

Oftentimes it’s not because weak signals are frail and shaky that makes them tough work. It’s just that there is so much noise that gets in their way for both finding them, internalizing them and acting on them. In fact, many weak signals go unnoticed entirely, passing through the chaos of time and space waiting for future keen observers to spot them as they orbit again.

Before we explore our sixth tool Weak Signals analyses in our continuing Grey Swan methods and frameworks series, let’s explore four arenas of noise that can affect signal detection.

The Four Sources of Weak Signal Noise

I recently posed a question to a panel of my strategy and futurist illuminati “to what source do you MOST owe to the level of uncertainty you face in life?”.

Here’s what was returned as the answer:

Spotting the signal through the noise often has to pass through our four slightly opaque lenses. I have hosted confessionals with some of my most trusted colleagues mentioning what they are processing (especially during times of stress) might not be dispassionate and objective, but more a subjective temporarily skewed view of the world. The bias is known as motivated reasoning —the pre-existing beliefs we hold influence how we process new information. Grey Swan hunters must be able to look at available evidence in alternative balanced ways.

Despite the high intelligence of my responding panel above, they might be accused a little bit of the bias of the illusion of control (i.e. the tendency for people to believe that they have more control over things than they really are) - that aside, let’s deal with each lens in priority:

i) Spotting Societal Signals from Noise (60%)

The prism that we see society’s events and developments through can refract a lot of observations about them. Here are five key ones:

  • geography of residence — where you live changes your emphasis
  • dominant culture & race — engrained beliefs affect outlooks
  • environment & climate — surroundings influence felt impacts
  • class of society — level of wealth/fame/status impact your views
  • rights & systems — local freedoms and regimes alter stances

ii) Spotting Personal Signals from Noise (26%)

The compass that we direct our intrapersonal views towards, can tilt differently depending on a variety of harmonies and discords we feel at the time. Here are five key ones:

  • identities & belonging — how we affiliate shifts our attitude
  • mental health & stresses — levels of anxieties can dominate our opinions
  • moods & feelings — things like hunger, weather, time of day or optimism can sway our thinking day-to-day, even hour-to-hour
  • gender & age — key demographic markers inescapably change our field of vision
  • openness & knowledge — the consideration for, and amount of views considered and understood, swing tolerances for positions

iii) Spotting Institutional Signals from Noise (11%)

The professional, institutional or educational worlds we inhabit can swim over all facets of our lives and affect our filters. Here are five key ones:

  • public, corporate, startup or not-for-profit employment — motivations, purpose and style of work setting can guide opinions
  • education and learning — where and how you studied, and what programs and style of teaching you received, plant seeds of conviction
  • political orientation — left, centrist or right leaning influences can create polarized views
  • media and journalism — what you read and consume about the world across mediums can fluctuate your interpretations
  • causes and movements — passions and altruisms we feel strongly about seep into our mindsets

iv) Spotting Social Signals from Noise (3%)

Not too sure if this chicken or egg, but the people you spend time with in real life and online cast a large shadow on your views.

Even though it was rated at only 3%, we know the deep impact on how our immediate families, friends, colleagues and connections can influence us consciously and unconsciously (read James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds or Douglas Murray’s Madness of Crowds as evidence). Here are five key ones:

  • life stages and events — key milestones and touchstones shared within our tribes seep into our shifting perspectives
  • hobbies and pastimes — where and how we play inevitably infiltrates how we think
  • cities or countrysides — the sensibilities of urban vs. rural life impact your orientation to space, relationships and values
  • associations and events — the influence of learning and networking with other industry minds is undeniable in shaping our orientations
  • friends and families — the people we affiliate it with most change our veiws, as thought leader Jim Rohn quips “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

How do you escape this surrounding noise and illusions when chasing weak signals? We’ll address is in edition #6 of our top 15 Grey Swan methods and frameworks series — Weak Signals identification and analysis.

Stretegies for Escaping Grey Swan and Weak Signal Noise-itis and Bias-dromes

Humans are flawed prediction machines. They can be afflicted by poor future judgments. Six Grey Swan general quickies to overcome what we have coined as Noise-itis and Bias-dromes:

  • Look around corners and underground— change where you observe.
  • Look ahead and past your field of view — accept tomorrow can and will be different.
  • Look with enlightened others — balance your noise and bias with other savvy peoples’ noise and bias.
  • Look for the first time — have a beginner’s mindset when contemplating equally the familiar and strange.
  • Don’t just look, jump in — become your own anthropologist, and immerse yourself in different worlds.
  • Stop gazing out into your backyard — you are not a techie, you are not a political nerd, you are not a finance geek — you are an interdisciplinary hunter of Grey Swans. Explore other postal codes to see the full city of a concern versus the isolated neighborhoods of narrowed views.

Okay let’s make it real and consider our sixth tool in our series — Weak Signals

Reminder — Grey Swan Definition: Unlikely but knowable key factors, events and developments, capable of being evaluated and validated in advance, with impacts that could positively and/or negatively shake up the world.

Get vested in this effort together. Don’t be an ostrich, pigeon or dodo, be a Grey Swan.

The Full Collection of Grey Swan Methods & Frameworks

Method #6 — Weak Signals — Small Things Before Becoming Bigger Things

Weak Signals analyses are the various approaches we use in scanning, filtering, focusing and acting on evidence that may indicate the early stages of emerging Grey Swans — those possible, wild card and extreme shifts, disruptions and scenarios thatc hange our world. This effort is frequently the result of looking beyond our core knowledge base and day-to-day business activities into adjacent, future and peripheral sources and spaces.

Weak signals are defined as advance, unclear observables that could help predict future states and identify potential disruptions. They carry vague information about tomorrow that can foretell us about the future developments. They are constructed by data and information, but require some level of interpretation of something emerging.

Difficulties in weak signals analyses lie in distinguishing their relevant warning clues from the surrounding, interfering and imperfect “noise”. They can crop up as important by five vulnerabilities:

  • not observing them in the first place and missing threats and opportunities;
  • noticing them too late or before other key players (e.g. competitors, regulators) and suffering late mover impacts;
  • not observing the hidden consequences and problems of strong signals and operating in unnecessary uncertainty;
  • seeing them, but not being able to interpret or act on them, suffering alignment issues and operational weaknesses in the process; or
  • experiencing isolated weak signals analysis wins that lack repeatable observability, affecting the credibility of the discipline as perhaps no more than luck.

As we will discover (and have visualized above), the level of entropy (i.e. the degree of disorder or uncertainty in a system) can have a magnified effect on weak signals. In a business context, they can affect our strategies, business models, leadership efforts, operations or industry environments. Weak signals occupy the world of high uncertainty/high impact early warnings, events (or causes of events) or phenomena, and therefore are distinct from other future stimuli we have visualized above.

When you look at the universe of weak signal research, key questions exist (often unanswerable) that go beyond the confines of our piece here:

  • Is a weak signal a sign of an emerging issue, or the issue itself?
  • Is a weak signal a blindness to gradual change, or a fast sprouting wild card or extreme development?
  • Is weak signals analyses better advanced by a stronger intake, dashboard and technology factors, or by stronger interpretation, communication and human factors?
  • Is weak signals work a focused point-in-time effort against a specific challenge, or a broad continuous early radar detection effort?
  • Is weak signals work the domain of specialists, or is it all of our concerns?
  • when weak signals escape our detection or are diagnosed wrong, is it the fault of our filters, the actors involved, or the key stakeholders attention gaps?

One of the special challenges of weak signals is that they confront our existing mental models and practices. Changing key fundamental assumptions and controversial opinions usually come through our front doors looking like unwelcome house guests. They can be seen as threatening and almost heretical by colleagues. Weak signals are new and surprising, and likely unknown or dismissible by your reticent colleagues. Due to weak signals’ soft nature, weak signal practitioners need to have credibility, resilience, acute listening skills and strong communication abilities to overcome the inevitable resistance to their conclusions.

Weak signals can show up as four different types:

  • feelings — signals with strong human perception characteristics but frequently not acted on as they lack strong evidence or direction
  • uncertainties — signals that indicate changes in our environments, challenged by their debatable sources and outcomes, but still seen as worthy of chasing down their unknowns
  • semi-certainties — signals that are seen as evident, but lack an exact trajectory, time or place of impact, volume of change or expected consequences
  • near certainties — signals with strong enough evidence of their specifics and eventual occurrence, but still require internalization and action

Despite the general acceptance of the existence of weak signals in the business landscape, and the recent explosion of technologies and AI tools for identify early warnings, weak signal analysis is still finding its footing inside organizations. Poor governance, biased diagnosis, wrong scanning and risk assessments, slow triggers to elevate signal detection to action, integration and communication conflicts, and aloof or short-term reactive senior management and boards, are all impediments to further progress.

Invented by: Many authors have had different interpretations and definitions for a weak signal. The first person who mentioned the weak signal concept was Russian/American mathematician and guru of strategic management Igor Ansoff in 1975.

Ansoff stated that weak signals were strategic surprises that were possible to predict by the benefit of signs, “imprecise early indications about impending impactful events even though their shape and nature and source are not yet known”.

Category: Strategic planning, environmental scanning, knowledge management and foresight system of efforts to help improve gaps in existing thinking and traditional methods.

Why we Love It as a Grey Swan Tool: The importance of tying Grey Swan detection work to real strategic action versus merely improved intelligence; recognizing the importance and tangibility of spotting and integrating these early warning signs as a key business function.

Overcomes the sin of: What is obvious gets acted on —and not using weak signals to hedge against emerging issues; bandwagon effects — integrating and innovating developments that have already mainstreamed with a super-heated following versus realizing tthe true benefit of tapping something still emerging.

Work preceded by:

  • The Team — getting the right people involved requires: balancing external lenses with internal interpretation, establishing a wide enough less-biased funnel with specific expertise in synthesis work, building a centre of special talent excellence with co-vestment by an executive group in the results.
  • Radar Scope — ensuring weak signals work can be relevant involves: where and how to point your signal scope, areas of interest, themes and system map(s) of uncertainties, current assumptions and dominant macro drivers baseline, key learnings and unknowns, search strategies, data quality and automation required to process a large range without the human actor bias.

Work followed by:

  • Editorial Sharing — weak signals communication and distribution forums contains a lot of new and unfamiliar information that needs to be clear, concise, and credible enough to disarm stakeholders, instil action and dramatize the future environment you see.
  • Integrating and Systematizing Weak Signals Work — on an ongoing basis embedding how the organization can employ and apply weak signals to improve its ability to thrive across all its functions.

Facets of the Weak Signal Analyses:

Scanning —searching and perceiving new emerging issues. key drivers, signals and hypotheses, scroll and audit sources, employ content search and content analysis technologies and prompts

  • Categorization — PESTLE categories (Political, Economic, Social, Technologies, Legal and Environmental) — weak signals don’t always neatly fall into categories but PESTLE offers a good starting point of inquiry
  • Sources — we have pointed to 18 sources of great primary, secondary and tertiary insights, observation and data (in the visual above) away from the mainstream.
  • Documentation— when you find a weak signal, record it, share it with a distinct naming/visual, categorize it, shorthand the idea, codify what’s changing, document why it matters and connect what it might link to.

Filtering — interpretation of weak signals, formulating key questions and missings, understand elevated meanings, and importance of new diganosis

  • Verifiable Weak Signal I.D.— asking questions and discussing in-depth the relevance of the signals and their potential influence — we have suggested 10 reactions (in the visuals abovn) that might help discern whether you have true weak signals (versus noise or strong signals) — difficulties, disbelief, fuel, hilarity, incredulity, potential, reframing, resistance, surprise and taboo.
  • Weak Signal Cascade Effects- speculate on potential primary, secondary, tertiary and further cascading impacts of these signals

Focusing—knit together signals into trends and synthesizing issues with mutual influences, map the landscape of the bigger trend, hunt for related supporting evidence and signals, translate signal into potential opportunity, impact, scenarios and consequences

  • Weak Signal Collisions — exploring how signals might interact with each other and with their environment and ecosystem to create surprises
  • Signal-to-Trend Clustering — group signals into thematic groups that reveal patterns of change
  • Headlines and Implications — identify and provocatively communicate potential opportunities, threats and contingencies

Acting — elevating urgencies, identify stakeholder importance and gaps, make, guide and align key decisions, create new strategies or policies, develop implementations and roadmaps, ongoing monitor, thresholds and validation, review weak signals’ system performance for effiicacy, bias & noise, predictive performance, stakeholder experience and sustainability

  • Anticipatory Acts — apply impact, confront and guide new strategy and future work
  • Operational Acts — apply impact, augment, validate and/or pivot existing strategy and current work
  • Self Reflection and Improvement — evaluate & improve the weak signal analysis effort and system

Additional Commentary on Weak Signals analysis:

“Weak signals analyses is like being a line cook in a fast moving kitchen. So much chaos is happening, so little time is involved, and so many ingredients can be pulled together into some final plate. Get any of it wrong and customers may go hungry, Effective intelligence chefs can juggle this ecosystem of influences to positively affect and promote fast-moving behaviour of its well practicing companies. The quality of the offering reflects on the calibre of ingredients, cooking process, chef acumen and bringing the plate to the table on time. In weak signals, we call this scanning, filtering, focusing and acting. ” Sean Moffitt

Grey Swans — A Month of Specialty Posts:

This is number six of a set of fifteen posts on different methods and frameworks for chasing Grey Swans. but we have so much other commentary on this valuable but often overlooked chase for the non-obvious:

Stay tuned with us here, as well as on our website for all the rundowns.

Participate in our Hunt for Grey Swans

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Be among the most talented and wide-eyed observers. Let us know your Grey Swan additions and we will add them to our annual collection with our 2024 Grey Swan Guild Subnmission Form. Other benefits and collabroations may follow.

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