Ten years ago I took my son to East Africa to stay in a Masai village. I reasoned that time with these mighty warriors would be a good anecdote to his rather cosy suburban life.
On the second day at the village, our Masai guide walked with us into the surrounding countryside. Then something surprising happened. The silence of this picturesque place was pierced by a strangely familiar sound. From his belt pocket the warrior took his ringing mobile phone. This was not something I'd expected.
Four years ago I had been asked by the female students at London Business School (LBS) to speak at their annual Women in Business Conference. I spoke for around 30 minutes on the way that large corporations could make a positive difference in the world - a topic I had explored in a recently published book. In the Q&A session that followed I expected to be asked about corporate social responsibility. Instead, I was quizzed about how I had managed to be a mother and also build a relatively successful career as a professor and business woman. This was again something I had not expected.
Yet these unexpected experiences had something profound in common. They were both 'weak signals' in the sense that they both alerted me to something I had not really or deeply considered. They also heralded something that would become more important in the future.
I had not realised the scale with which mobile phones were being rolled out across East Africa and indeed that they contained the possibility of transferring money. And I had not realised how deeply worried young women were about the life choices they face.
Both these weak signals had a profound impact on my thinking. The first led to the creation of my Future of Work Research Consortium - dedicated to analysing the impact of trends in technology, demography and society on corporations and the people that work for them. The second helped me understand the huge impact that Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in the Atlantic would have when she wrote about her personal challenges in 'having it all.'
I'm not sure it's possible to actively seek out weak signals - often times, serendipity seems to play a key role. But here are some ideas:
- Don't turn your back on what seems hard to comprehend. Frankly I was amazed by the questions at the LBS event. What was wrong with these women that my personal life was so interesting to them? Yet as I reflected on what had happened I began to realise that I had inadvertently tapped into a deep seam of anxiety. I began to realise that young women are genuinely concerned about their future, and as a commentator about the future I needed to understand this and indeed learn more about it. I've learnt to be very sensitive to people or ideas that don't fall into my way of thinking.
- Be prepared to get off the beaten path. I had not expected to learn about technology through a family visit to East Africa. Yet by getting out of my normal routine I was faced with new experiences that presented me with weak signals and new insights.
- Mix with different people. It's easy in a busy life to spend lots of time with people similar to ourselves. Yet often the 'weak signals' are found in unexpected conversations. So these days I try to spend time every week with people who are different from me. People who don’t necessarily walk the paths that I do, and whose experience of the world is profoundly different from mine.
Looking ahead is such a wonderful thing to do - and weak signals can be just the way to do this.