Selecting the Right Signals: Don’t Ask, “Is It Good;” Ask “What Is It Good For?”
You can separate signals into two categories: internal signals for developing forecasts, and external signals for illustrating those forecasts.
Signals are evidence of the future that we can find in today’s world. They are concrete, compelling observations about how the world is changing that give us a hint at where we might be headed. Think specific products, policies, events, experiences. Finding signals is one of the most important elements of practicing foresight, but it’s also one of the most challenging. When getting started, people often ask, “How do I know if I have a good signal?”
The truth is, signals are subjective. And whether or not a signal is “good” really depends on what you’re using it for. Here are some tips for figuring out whether a signal is fit for purpose.
What is it for?
Broadly speaking, you can separate signals into two categories: internal signals for developing forecasts and external signals for illustrating those forecasts.
***Does it make the forecast more clear? The primary function of a signal in a forecast deliverable is to clarify the forecast for the audience. They function as a real world example that illustrates how something might work in the future. This means selecting the signal that will be the easiest for the audience to grasp, not necessarily the one you, as a forecast practitioner, find most interesting.
***Does it make the forecast more plausible? The secondary function is to convince your audience that your forecast is plausible. This, of course, means understanding your audience and choosing the kind of signal they find most convincing, (for example, some audiences find data points or results of research studies uniquely credible, for others, art projects and anecdotes might be the most compelling). But one general principle that applies to almost all audiences is that a signal is never convincing on its own. You’ll need to use drivers (more about drivers here) to make it clear that the signal is worth paying attention to and that it does make your forecast more plausible.
***Does it add anything different? In most forecasts, you’ll want to include multiple signals. While some audiences find it helpful and convincing to see several similar signals, it’s usually better to select signals that are different from one another in substantial ways. (One thing to keep in mind, is that if you can find too many similar signals, they might not actually be signals at all and are, instead, drivers.) It’s important to think about how each signal contributes something different to your forecast. For instance, you can select your signals to make a point about how the forecast might unfold in different regions and for different socioeconomic groups. You can also combine signals to add important nuances or caveats to your forecast.
***Does it tell a good story? One important function of a signal that often goes undiscussed is its storytelling value. Good signals provoke your imagination and leave a lasting impression. While signals often appear as bullet points in a map or report, without a lot of room for detail, in presentations or other more in-depth formats, signals can be explained as a story that makes the forecast more engaging and memorable for your audience. If the people involved in the signal, the way the signal came to be, or the impacts it had are interesting or surprising, then it can be narrativized effectively.
These are some of the principles we use to select signals. What are some of yours? Please feel free to reach out and share your own suggestions!
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Institute for the Future (IFTF) is the world’s leading futures organization. Its training program, IFTF Foresight Essentials, is a comprehensive portfolio of strategic foresight training tools based upon 50 years of IFTF methodologies. IFTF Foresight Essentials cultivates a foresight mindset and skillset that enable individuals and organizations to foresee future forces, identify emerging imperatives, and develop world-ready strategies. To learn more about how IFTF Foresight Essentials is uniquely customizable for businesses, government agencies, and social impact organizations, visit iftf.org/foresightessentials or subscribe to the IFTF Foresight Essentials newsletter.