June 15, 2007

Expert: Effective managers tune in to weak signals

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Becoming aware of emerging trends in the workplace before they become obvious is necessary in today's rapidly changing business environment, says a Purdue University leadership expert.

Beverly J. Davis, an associate professor of organizational leadership and supervision at the College of Technology locations in Lafayette and Kokomo, said the ability to identify "weak signals," which are defined as imprecise, early indicators of an impending important event or trend, is key to effective management.

"A weak signal may be lingering under any complex business environment, and today's technology has accelerated this cycle," she said. "Often, big changes follow small events, and these changes can happen very quickly. That's why an 'old world' view of leaders, even those of six months ago, won't work anymore."

Davis says some examples of weak signals that eventually had major consequences include the impact of eBay on retailing, the rise in popularity of cell phones that has led many to abandon landline-based telephones and the surge in gas prices that affected the once-booming sport-utility vehicle market.

"It's important for managers to think big, and it's vital for them to be able to understand the difference between a fad and a trend," she says. "If management in these industries would have been picking up on these weak signals, they might have prevented a lot of the damage done to their businesses."

Davis says in order for a fad to become a trend, it must appeal to the mainstream, be accessible to all, be easily understandable to the average person, be easy to obtain and be affordable.

"An excellent example of a company that picked up on a trend was Starbucks," she says. "The founder expanded his Seattle coffee shop into a huge enterprise and made it appealing to the average American. He was able to recognize that caf├ęs were a strong trend in Europe and was able to pick up on the weak signal that Americans, despite their fast-paced lifestyle, were eager to embrace the idea of slowing down enough to visit a coffee shop, bookstore or library to connect with other people."

Davis suggests several additional tips for managers to stay on top of weak signals:

* Read all of your industry's materials you can, even if they don't directly relate to your job or business. "This will give you a much larger perspective and viewpoint on which to base decisions," she says.

* Scan other industry trends. "It is difficult to detect trends and weak signals when they begin where you least expect it," she says. "That's why you have to stay on top of trends in every sector."

* Rely on your leadership experience and trust your intuition.

* Be open to ideas that are thought to be irreverent and disruptive of the status quo.

* Try to see the big picture or the system rather than focusing on parts.

* Be aware of biases and chain of thought, in both you and the organization, and the limitations of relying on past certainties in your industry.

* Have an ongoing process to identity and monitor weak signals, and once weak signals are detected, prioritize and create action steps or goals for the organization. Davis says organizations can do this by conducting constant research and even having a task force or committee assigned to identifying possible trends and how they could affect the group or business.

"When weak signals are detected, it's important to ensure that your organization sets up a system to act on legitimate signals and that leaders are encouraged to pursue action plans in response to the detection," she says.

Writer: Kim Medaris, (765) 494-6998, kmedaris@purdue.edu

Source: Beverly J. Davis, (765) 586-8945, bevjd@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu

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