A signals club is a great way to integrate foresight into your organization. And if you are thoughtful with the set-up, a signals club will flourish in most organizations.
Our club at Meritrust Credit Union celebrated its first anniversary earlier this year, and I still look forward to the energy and creativity of every single club meeting. I hope sharing some of what I’ve learned will help you design your club. Here’s a handout with quick tips, and below are some things to consider:
Define your club’s purpose and be patient. What is the purpose of your club? What will long-term success look like? Drive toward that goal when designing your club, and be patient while waiting for results. Incorporating foresight, or any new concept, into your organization will be a slow climb. But if you keep building energy and excitement, your signals club can be the foundation of foresight in your organization.
Make the club inclusive. I believe that if a club can be accessible to most members of the organization, it should be. That accessibility will make the group more inviting, energetic, and successful. Contrast this with an exclusive club where organizers presume exclusivity makes both the club and those included feel special. The future includes all of us, and the wider audience, the more diverse your conversation will be. An inclusive club also creates a space for newcomers, introverts, and those sometimes overlooked creative thinkers and observers to participate.
I approached inclusivity with our signals club in three ways:
No experience is necessary. Make it clear everyone is qualified to attend, no matter the experience level. Spend time making sure your club is designed for newbies, as most people have never heard of signals.
New members are welcome anytime and existing members can attend as their jobs allow. My strategy was to have a three-minute introduction to open every meeting. When a new club meeting announcement goes out, it states, “New to Signals Club? We’ll catch you up in the first three minutes.” Three minutes is a short enough time that regular members won’t dread it, but it is plenty of time to be meaningful for new attendees. In those three minutes the facilitator should:
- Explain what a signal is. Keep this part simple and relatable so participants don’t check out because they’re overwhelmed. I have found it helpful to explain how I identified signals in my early days. For me, it was when I thought, “That’s dumb,” or, “That will never work.”
- Introduce the idea of “many overlapping futures.” My organization is in middle America where we are known for being “too nice.” In a low-stakes environment, people often won’t contradict. That becomes more complicated in cross-department and multi-level meetings. For the club to work, you want people to feel empowered to speak freely. My strategy for this was to use an approachable example about the history and future of listening to music. I remind people that at one point MP3s were the future of music, then streamed music. Despite that, people today still have vinyl records, CDs, and even cassettes and 8-tracks. Some people listen to music in multiple ways. Some only stream, others never stream. So if someone describes a possible future, and you have what feels like a contradicting opinion of what the future might include (vinyl records), you’re not disagreeing. Instead, you’re adding nuance to that possible future. The future will always be nuanced, complex, and contradictory, and many futures will overlap. Talking about how two or three ideas will coexist makes the conversation more interesting. I also challenge them to have fun and be creative and bold.
- Talk about biases. Being open to talking about signals challenges our biases, and we are better for that challenge. The more we practice, the easier it becomes to challenge biases which makes us better able to imagine alternate futures. I have found most people love to identify and challenge their biases, but some will initially feel defensive. I circle back to the “That’s dumb/will never work” perspective I had when I would come across signals in my early days. I now know that reaction was my bias showing. We are overwhelmed with information every day, and biases help us take shortcuts to make good decisions informed by the past. But when thinking about the future, we have to fight this urge by slowing down and saying, “What if?” The only rule in our signals club is we cannot say, “That will never happen.” Instead, we should consider, “That’s different! What might that be like?” Consciously suspend reality, if that helps.
Offer a variety of meetings, if appropriate. The final piece to designing an inclusive club was to offer both in-person and virtual meetings. Our workforce is largely still in-person, but we have outlying branch locations. Even among people who can attend in person, some prefer and feel more comfortable with a virtual meeting. For this reason, we alternate between in-person and virtual club meetings. We don’t have a hybrid meeting because we don’t have the technology to support this style of meeting. But if you can offer a hybrid (or any other style of meeting), use what you have, and consider what makes sense and what will be most comfortable for your attendees. Be open to meeting times and locations. Your meetings will be more inclusive and most successful if you cater to your organization’s unique needs and capabilities.
Consider your organization’s strategy and culture during your pitch. This is very important. If you can’t get the idea out the front door, it won’t go anywhere. Take time to think about how to build (and pitch!) a signals club that makes sense to your organization. What worked for me won’t necessarily work for you. Think about which of your organization’s strategies a signals club supports. For me, a signals club supported three things: staff development, networking, and long-term thinking that challenges a norm.
- Staff Development — My organization is constantly encouraging staff development. In our case, training offered by internal staff is an easy sell because it is accessible, affordable, and develops the facilitator. This made our signals club an easy sell. I barely had to pitch the idea and got a “yes.” However, in some organizations, development hours are capped, so this may not be the right pitch for you.
- Networking/Cross-Department Relationship Building — Because of our organization’s disbursed branch network, we are always trying to build cross-team relationships, and offer internal networking opportunities to foster a healthy workplace. A signals club is a great way to get to know others in your organization and foster relationships with like-minded (future-thinking, innovative) employees on otherwise disparate teams.
- Future-Thinking and Challenging Norms — The faster the world, especially technology, changes, we all have to continually improve how we work, question why we’re doing what we’re doing, and be willing to challenge the “this is how we’ve always done it” mindset. If your organization wants employees to think bigger picture and longer-term, and be open to continual re-skilling and up-skilling, a signals club could be an easy sell. You won’t see an immediate return on investment, as it takes time for mindsets to evolve. But once people start challenging biases naturally, they will begin to question why a process should stay the same, start to think about what they and their team might need to be doing next, and, in general, be more open to change and new skill requirements.
- Something Else — If none of these fit your organization, what is your organization currently trying to mobilize? I bet a signals club fits under the umbrella of more than one strategic objective. If you can’t find one, I’ll challenge you to look again. I bet your biases are limiting you!
Be thoughtful with your agenda design. While you can manage these meetings on the fly, I’ve found preparation is important when getting a new club off the ground. Organization and consistency help the club run smoothly. It also allows others an opportunity to lead as a facilitator, if that’s a skill they want to practice, and take ownership. I almost always end up leading the meetings, but since it’s a “club” I like it when it doesn’t feel like it’s MY club but OUR club.
An agenda, even if it’s something only the facilitator sees, is critical to success. Just as your meeting locations and style will cater to your organization’s unique needs and capabilities, the agenda needs to cater to the style and setup of your meeting. We have had success with:
- In-person — Agendas are printed. The setup of the room we use for our meetings makes printed agendas the easiest for club members to read. On the agenda, we list the title of the signal, a brief “what” and “so what.” The signal owner introduces and describes the “what” and uses the “so what” to start the conversation. At the end of the discussion, we do a brief “now what” that helps employees connect the takeaway ideas to their jobs. (See more below on “now what.”)
- Virtual meetings — We use Microsoft Teams and display our agenda using PowerPoint. The signal title and very brief “what” is displayed as the signal is introduced. As we start to discuss the implications, the “so what” is displayed. When the discussion starts, we take the slides down so club members can see one another. We also use chat to add a second way for club members to interact. If we have enough facilitators, one person facilitates the verbal discussion, and another watches and interacts in the chat. As we close out the conversation, we bring the slides back and display the “now what,” then ask if anyone has other ideas for how to use this in day-to-day work.
Consider adding a “Now what?” to help club members see the value. Our early club meetings only covered “what” and “so what.” The feedback we received after these initial meetings told us employees weren’t connecting with “why” they were attending these meetings. They wanted a “thing” they could take back beyond challenging biases and shifting their mindsets, which feedback told us didn’t feel immediate enough. Employees seemed to be searching for a change or decision of some kind based on insights in the club meetings, to prove their time was being used in a value-added way. To help with this, we incorporated a “now what” as we closed out the discussion on each signal. This “now what” includes simple actions like taking a wider perspective to a staff meeting, challenging current biases or designing new processes with the biases we’ve challenged, bringing innovative ideas if a new position is created, or as part of recruiting, retention, and engagement discussions.
Take on the signal-gathering at the start, then gently nudge others to help out. In an ideal world, a signals club would have all club members bringing signals. However, I knew that it would be too intimidating to require people to bring signals. I remember feeling intimidated when I had to bring my first two signals to IFTF’s Foresight Essentials training and found most people in the class felt the same. That’s a barrier. In the case of the Foresight Essentials training, you overcome that fear to complete the course. In the case of a signals club, however, participants might not feel the pressure to do extra work.
Instead, my goal was to get a year’s worth of meetings in, then start nudging some of the regular attendees to consider bringing a signal. This has worked well for our club. Now that we’ve reached the year mark, I’ve offered to “buy any item from the vending machine area if you bring a signal.” That got a few eyes to light up, and one person volunteered to bring a signal to the next meeting. My goal isn’t to make everyone an expert on the first day. Rather, it’s to encourage them to step a tiny bit out of today’s comfort zone so when we come back tomorrow that comfort zone is a little bit bigger. And if I’m honest, it’s part of my job to track signals, so it’s no problem to organize 4–6 signals I already have for club meetings. It wouldn’t be a hill I’d even start to hike up to die on if I didn’t get takers to bring signals. If club members want to take the challenge, great! If not, the discussion is growing our organization.
A signals club certainly isn’t a typical club. There are no dues and no paperwork to fill out to join. We’ve never voted on anything. There’s no secret handshake, and no treehouse, unfortunately. But it serves as a fun way to connect people and transport them to an imaginative collective headspace which ultimately prepares your organization for the future.
Good luck to you and the organization you’re making stronger with foresight. And have fun!
IFTF Foresight Essentials
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 over 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.