"We made the largest-selling, battery-operated flashlights in the country. It was a monopoly of sorts. The brass-bodied, large, heavy torch was a mandatory fixture not only in rural households but also in urban ones. People gifted it to couples when they tied the knot. No wonder the marketing team of our company had named it 'Jeevan Saathi' or 'life companion'."
He paused to sip some coffee. He had been headingsales at the company. "All thus happened in the span of a few months." He was telling me about the early warning signals of trouble.
During one of the field visits he had noticed a few plastic flashlights in some retail outlets. They were made in China and fitted into the palm of his hand. They needed simple AA batteries that made them lightweight and were being sold at a fraction of the best-selling Jeevan Saathi. The consumers loved the lightweight version that was easy to slip into the pocket or purse.
The sales of Jeevan Saathi dipped. It was a temporary blip, the organization believed. The sales team worked hard and recovered lost ground. Two months later, when the sales dipped, the board asked for an explanation.
When my friend mentioned that the consumers had started buying plastic-made flashlights, the board members laughed at him and dismissed his apprehension. "Our consumers will never buy these shabbily designed plastic torches. They look cheap and flimsy. If anything the demand for our brass flashlights will go up. We should charge a premium to punish the consumers for flirting with the cheap stuff."
To cut a long story short, the leaders were wrong. They failed to heed the weak signals. The once thriving product (and organisation) was unable to be agile enough to respond to weak signals.
The digital shifts will see this getting played out once again. Until the other day, driver-less cars seemed like a page out of a science fiction novel. What made the news even more unbelievable was that the car was being built by a company known for its search engine. Baidu and Google are no longer the only ones making driver-less cars. Singapore, Helsinki and Perth have tested driver-less cars, buses and taxis. Uber is in the game. Yutong is running trials in China. It is no longer a weak signal. It is a digital tsunami that is going to disrupt drivers, auto manufacturers and insurers and many more. The disruption is just beginning.
How can leaders learn to listen to weak signals? When anyone with a mobile phone can become a media house, it is hard to separate noise from signals. The abundance of information, data and opinions from experts makes it overwhelming. Leaders must use the digital media to listen and communicate. It is a skill that can let them connect to employees as well as to talent pools externally. The leaders can use their external network to understand which murmurs are transient and which ones have to be responded to. They can use the lead time to prepare the organisation for the pivot.
Leaders have to make time to build an online presence and listen to conversations. Learning to catch the trend a few months earlier than competition can be the difference between survival and obsolescence.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)