The Art of Monitoring

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 9, 2005
Filed in Communication

Organisations that operate in complexity need a monitoring regime. Combining the following three approaches to monitoring will improve an organisation’s ability to adapt in uncertain circumstances. The three approaches are:

  • monitoring at intervals
  • monitoring at events
  • creating signposts

Monitoring at intervals

Some things change quickly while others move at glacial speed. Consequently, when monitoring a business environment, it is important to look for indicators which represent the spectrum of change speeds. For example, we might track staff blogs regularly for daily perturbations, while only reviewing competitors’ annual reports each year for slow moving trends. Monitoring at intervals means examining the world around us at set, regular periods. These intervals match the rate of change of the phenomena of interest. A monitoring regime, therefore, might schedule daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly visits to information sources.

A problem with relying solely on this type of environmental scanning is that it assumes that the world about us is predictable and that a phenomena moving at, say, a weekly cycle, does not rapidly change to a daily cycle. Many of us witnessed this speeding up and slowing down of cycles in the dot com boom and bust. The difficulty is knowing when to speed up or slow down the rate of monitoring.


There are two ways to approach the problem of unpredictability in monitoring: implement interventions and monitor the results (monitoring at events); and devise scenarios in order to identify warning signs that indicate that monitoring should accelerate (creating signposts).

Monitoring at events

When implementing an intervention, it is impossible to predict the outcome in detail. Monitoring to detect the patterns that emerge from the intervention enables corrections to be made. An explicit programme of monitoring reinforces the view that interventions in a complex system can never be set and forgotten and increases the mindfulness of the decision-takers and planners—a key requirement in handling complex and unpredictable environments (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001).


Creating signposts

Scenario planning assists the monitoring programme by helping decision-takers and planners identify warning signs. If an intervention takes the organisation close to one of these signposts, the rate of monitoring can be increased and corrective measures taken.The principal difficulty with scenario planning is that the breadth of possibilities is limited by the imagination of those involved in developing the scenarios. It is important, therefore, that the monitoring-of-events approach also helps identify signposts. While it is impossible to cover the entire space of possibility within a complex environment, a systematic method combining these three approaches considerably enhances an organisation’s ability to adapt.


Weick, K. E. & Sutcliffe, K. M. 2001. Managing the Unexpected. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Acknowledgements: I’ve recently become re-aware of the need for monitoring after talking with Dave Snowden who pointed out the interval monitoring problem of missing catastrophic change. My conversations with Bruce McKenzie helped my understand the role scenarios might play in creating signposts.

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About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


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