We live in a world of signals. There are innumerable bits of information that float around us every day. We see and hear things that are relayed via media--the internet, television, books, magazines, trade journals and even radio. We pick up snatches of conversation in the check-out line or on the street or in the hallway. We receive emails and scan message boards. Some information that enters our orbit has more immediate value, and some information may not be relevant now, but may have important implications in the future. This type of information is indicative of a weak signal--that something is happening. Entrepreneurs take the time to speculate and engage in deeper analysis of that "something" before deciding to act (or not).
For the entrepreneur launching a new product or entering a new market, weak signals could pave the wave for the next big trend. For instance, FitBit exploited weak signals. Fitbit's leaders noticed that there was a move in the general population toward health consciousness and that people were interested in finding out "more about me." The little wireless wearable device that measures heartbeat and steps found fans not only among serious athletes but users who were keen to improve their everyday fitness levels. The success of FitBit became a strong signal that others picked up, and now there are a lot of players in this niche hoping to satisfy the needs of consumers.
In a similar vein, PepsiCo made its name on what is termed, for better or worse, as junk food. PepsiCo made the connection between the weak signals of declining sales and an increased consumer interest in healthy eating, and revamped its product line to include food products that were better for health.
In a Harvard Business Review article ("Scanning the Periphery," November 2005) Professors George Day and Paul Schoemaker make the point that weak signals can be found at "the blurry zone at the edge of an organization's vision." Organizational actors may not be aware of the existence of the signals, which makes it more difficult if not impossible to search them out. Smart entrepreneurs not only know that signals exist but take active steps to detect them. Weak signals are like breadcrumbs scattered on a path--irregular, with missing data, but leading somewhere.
The incessant ping of a weak signal can point to a strong signal. Strong signals demand action and near-immediate course correction. Weak signals are more difficult to pick up, which is why it is important for entrepreneurs to be alert to their existence. A weak signal lets entrepreneurs engage some "what-if?" speculation. While we cannot know what is around the corner, we can guess, estimate, and hope. On the basis of this somewhat freestyle analysis and engaging in some further research, the agile entrepreneur can reach a conclusion regarding the potential meaning and possible implications of a weak signal.
Weak signals do not necessarily dictate action, but they give those who are listening and ready to receive them some essential information that may be valuable moving forward.