Weak signals in monitoring

Dynamic changes in modern world, modern life, require constant monitoring, constant awareness of changes in the environment in order to achieve sustainability of structures such as organizations and results of projects. And the sooner one becomes aware of change, the better one can prepare for using the emerging opportunity or avoiding emerging danger. Like in surfing, the surfer gets on the wave in an early phase and rides it when it becomes powerful. This also lights the subject from a different angle, i.e., weak signals are often seen as means to identify potential threats, but they can be as well used for timely identifying potential opportunity. So, it is essential to identify emerging change as early as possible. It makes concept of weak signals more and more important.

On the other hand, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to develop a methodology for identifying weak signals. Some opinions emphasize role of experts and that seems like a good starting point. Why are experts valuable? They have knowledge and experience. So, they already have deep understanding of the phenomena and know where to look for data and information indicating changes. When we analyze these benefits, experts seem to be a means to get what is really needed for detecting the emerging change timely and later for well-developed decision-making capacity, which is knowledge and updated information. So, experts may be very valuable in getting needed knowledge and information, resulting in decisions. They also can face stressful situation calmly, which is beneficial in conditions when the action is to be taken in short period of time and with limited information. Experience they have usually brings self-confidence (not arrogance) and capacity for well-thought reaction in short time in tense situations. We should keep in mind that experts are only one way for getting these values, there are also other ways, such as research, work of teams and networks, etc. which should be more explored from this point of view.

There is one more important category (that may or may not also be an expert), a decision maker. Namely, the longer one works on analyses and planning, the more one becomes aware of limitations of data in terms of early identification of future change. Data are useful, of course, but it should be kept in mind that data are just reflection of previous causes, which may no longer exist, or now function in different environment. So, in regard to getting information on what will happen, more than from experts, valuable information may come from decision makers. They know what they want and have means to realize that change. Also, they often have capacity to motivate people to contribute. Therefore, change which is in their focus is much more likely to create a change in reality, than some extrapolated event based on historical data.

Even if we can get weak signals on time, how do we filter what to take into account and what not to consider, how can we tell which signal is important and which is not? Again, methodology is very difficult, if not impossible, to create.

What can be done is to create an environment that enables and supports detection and use of weak signals. Encourage such behavior in the team (like psychological safety concept), set boundaries (following the idea of enabling constraints) to focus the efforts but eliminate obstacles to research and free thinking, and use safe to fail approach on signals that seem important. And see what happens. 

Inspired by The Flow System Training

Monitoring Redefined

In the Principles of Personal Defense, Jeff Cooper starts the chapter about the principle one, alertness, saying that among the first maxims to be impressed upon new lieutenants is the one that “A commander may be forgiven for being defeated, but never for being surprised” (Cooper, 1989: 7). In modern societies, conditions change rapidly and avoiding surprises is not an easy task. Nor is to design and implement an intervention that leads to desired change in such environment. Lately, there are more and more cases proving that it may not be enough to implement the activities defined in the project design to achieve expected results and reach the goals.

Why is this so? First, when talking about development funds supported projects, there is usually a period between project design and implementation phase, a time that is needed for ex ante evaluation, ranking proposals, and contracting selected ones. Second, implementation takes time, in case of some projects two to three years or more. So, it may happen that several years pass from the moment of project design to the moment when the goals should be achieved. It should also be considered that project design phase uses statistics and some other data that most often are a year or more old. And things do change over time. And the changes will influence results and impact of the intervention. Therefore, it is needed to maintain awareness throughout the implementation of development intervention, about the intervention itself as well as about the environment.

This awareness, let’s call it so, should consider the initial project design. It is a starting point, after all, and if the intervention is designed properly there is no reason to ignore the initial plan. But to achieve desired change in conditions of rapidly changing environment, it may not be enough. Not only the intervention, but the environment itself should be continuously monitored.

Monitoring based on approaches like project cycle management (PCM) is good for closely following the implementation of an intervention, ensuring that the implementation follows the plan (European Commission. 2004). It also includes significant attention to administrative and regulative aspects of implementation, such as procurement and reporting. In some cases, in stable conditions, this may be good enough to achieve the defined results of the intervention, i.e. to achieve desired change.

However, in conditions of dynamic changes in the environment, which is almost a rule for development interventions in modern society, it will not be sufficient. The mentioned awareness thus gets richer since it must include influence of changes in the environment. It would be just too shortsighted to ignore events in the environment that do happen and do have impact on implementation of an intervention. Monitoring should be sensitive to such events, too. Therefore, it should not focus only on the initial plan and implementation of activities accordingly but should also grasp external influences. Although PCM includes attention to such events, it is more emphasized in some other methods, such as Capacity Works, which sees results-based monitoring as a “navigation tool”, where it is needed to periodically test the initial hypotheses, as well as observe the ambient conditions, and if important changes are detected, the intervention may be adjusted (GIZ, 2015: 27).

Awareness gets even richer when SCRUM is brought into the picture. It brings in an interesting point of view –  instead of focusing only on what has been done, focus is primarily on the work that is still to be done and results to be achieved, recognizing that in complex environments, what will happen is unknown and that only what has happened may be used for forward-looking decision-making (Schwaber and Sutherland, 2016: 14). So, the intervention is to be monitored in its entirety.

The longer the implementation of an intervention lasts, the higher the probability that things will change and that this change will require adjustments in the intervention to achieve desired impact. Also, it is beneficial to, time to time, consider if there are changes in the environment, what are influences of the change on the intervention and how the intervention needs to be adjusted to new situation. Although outcome harvesting (Wilson-Grau and Britt, 2013) is primarily linked to evaluation, it seems that such perspective may be useful also in monitoring, especially in case of larger scale intervention with longer implementation period. This approach further enriches the awareness with attention to changes in the environment and links of the identified changes to the intervention, helping also to establish cause and effect relations.

Also, modern world is more and more connected and achieving changes through designed interventions is getting more and more demanding. Convergence is visible in many areas. Methods applied should not be left out of processes of change, neither should methods that function be left out from design and implementation of development interventions. It seems that it may be good to combine and adjust methods, taking from each method what is needed for successful managing of development processes. This gives broader perspective, enabling us to be aware of many important aspects of the environment and the intervention, and of their interactions, giving us a chance to timely adjust what needs to be adjusted and to navigate through these uncharted waters, since every intervention is a new experience. This should also increase chances of achieving the desired changes in modern societies, through well-designed and carefully navigated interventions, helping us to avoid unpleasant surprises on that path, by being constantly aware of our actions and our environment.


European Commission. 2004. Project Cycle Management Guidelines. EuropeAid Cooperation Office, Brussels.

Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland. 2016. The Scrum GuideTM, The Definitive Guide to Scrum: The Rules of the Game.

GIZ GmbH. 2015. Cooperation Management for Practitioners, Managing Social Change with Capacity WORKS. Gabler Verlag, Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden.

Ricardo Wilson-Grau, Heather Britt. Outcome Harvesting. May 2012 (Revised November 2013). Ford Foundation.

Cooper, Jeff. 1989. Principles of Personal Defense. Paladin Press.