Hitting weak signals for environmental scanning

Dave Snowden has been writing some interesting live blogs of late, including one of Peter Bishop’s presentation in Singapore.  Peter is a fellow futurist who I have met at a couple of foresight related conferences. 

The art of environmental scanning is the detection of signals which are not obvious with the aim of reducing the impact of being surprised.  Dave quotes Peter as saying that we should aim to be surprised in small ways, not big ways!  The hard part is that these signals are weak and early.  And that in identifying these signals, we will find it hard to separate those that are actually signalling change from those that are false positives.  Peter suggests that there is a sweet spot between maximising real signals and minimising false positives. 

In a book that I have finished called Flirting with Disaster by Marc Gerstein, he makes the point that following up weak signals is essential in implementing high-relaibility workplace safety, despite the desire to ignore these weak signals to save money.  He calls these weak signals of potential danger “free tuition” and notes that the biggest fallacy is to wait for an accident to be certain before taking action. 

With complex systems, it is often impossible to determine if a weak signal will be self-corrected by the system or if it will put in train a series of events that will create dissonance.  In these circumstances, it is essential for the human scanner to make an interpretation of the signal and its potential effect and then continue to monitor the system to see if the impact of the weak signal has been ameliorated, whether it has created tension which may cause change down the track, or if it will work in conjunction with other weak signals to change the dynamics of the system.  Hence, scanning begets scanning and does not work in isolation but feed backs upon itself.  And that there is a spectrum between false positives and actual change signals rather than a simple dichotomy.

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