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“Did you see what’s happening in your country?” “Yeah, Microsoft just came to an agreement with the government about its antitrust suit.” “I mean, what’s happening right now.” I was in Buenos Aires where I lived at the time. I had walked to the corner store to buy some paper for my printer. Silvia, the cashier, stared at the TV in front of her, her jaw opened in suspended animation. I then realized I was very much out of the loop. Asking permission, I walked behind the counter to look. It was September 11, 2001 and you know what happened that day.

As a leader, one of your main responsibilities is to stay “in the loop” about what’s happening outside your organization. You need to know what’s going on with other organizations like yours and you need to know how the likes and dislikes of your customers are changing.

If you own a bicycle repair shop, wouldn’t it be great to find out that sources you trust anticipate that the price of gas will go up by 50% within the next six months and will not drop back down any time soon? If you’re a teacher, what would it mean if you found a piece of research that shows that teenagers retain 90% more of what they receive in the form of a text message than they do hearing it from the mouth of an adult?

James Utterback describes the prodigious efforts of an ice company located in Upstate NY that, in spite of the invention of refrigeration, doubled up efforts to cut, store, and transport ice more efficiently.

Even as the door was closing on their industry, the northern ice men continued to make incremental improvement to both their product and the processes by which it was harvested, stored, and delivered. These improvements resulted in greater volume and lower unit costs. . . . The ice harvesters had developed an entire ‘system’ for production, storage, and distribution that was remarkably efficient. Despite the rapid spread of machine-made ice throughout the south, the 1886 ice harvest was the biggest ever–25 million tons, suggesting how the demise of a technology can be obscured by a growth market.1

What’s going on “out there” can make the difference between success and disaster. By knowing what’s coming down the pike, you might be able to tweak the organization just enough to change a threat into an opportunity, or at least to remove the alligator’s teeth.

What you need is what is technically called an “Environmental Scan.” I don’t like the word. For me, it conjures up images of a bowl-shaped device, with wires coming out of it, strapped onto the head of an unwilling subject. You probably think I’ve been watching too many Orwellian sci-fi flicks. At the least, the word “scan” today is associated with taking a page out of a magazine, placing it onto the glass surface of your photocopy machine and hitting the button that causes duplicates to come out the other end.

An environmental scan has nothing to do with recording brain waves or making a photocopy. Think of the word environment as everything that is “out there.” It has to do with any force outside your organization that could have an impact on your organization. Then think of “scan” as what spies do when they check out the land of the enemy: their weapons, fortifications, movements, and numbers, and the threats these pose. It also has to do with studying the terrain to find opportunities that could give the winning edge to your invasion forces.

An Environmental Scan can help you escape the confines of your mental routines (so there is a mental aspect to after all!). It’s a search of the outer environs of your normal mental habitat. Suppose you’re standing in line at Krogers and you glance at the latest edition of Popular Photography on the magazine rack. You’re not even a photographer, but what caught your eye was the title of one of the articles: “30 Most Photo-Friendly Cities.” That started you thinking about whether your company could be considered a photo-friendly company and what it would take to become one. The article goes on to provide some amazing research about what people are looking for in terms of visual stimulation and how this has changed over the past 30 years. This is indeed valuable information for your organization as it contemplates moving to a new location.

In an environmental scan you’re looking for two kinds of information: threats and opportunities. If you’re doing this for a church, you might say you’re looking for signs both of what God is doing in the world and also what the devil is doing. You don’t want to miss an opportunity to advance your organization—nor do you want to be hit in the back of the head with a tsunami-sized development and be the only one caught in the lowlands as it destroys everything you have done.

You don’t have to have a million dollar budget to do an environmental scan. Of course, there are folks who have teams of experts who will look under every trending rock and who can provide you with elaborate graphs and statistical analyses. But don’t think that, because you are not prepared to spend $100,000 on an expert, you can’t discover information that is worthwhile to your company. It’s just a matter of deliberately looking for forces that could have an impact on your business and then logging that information in some way that can be shared with the rest of your team.

The Scanning Journal

I have found the following tool helpful in conducting a low-budget environmental scan. It’s a way to log your findings. I like to call these pieces of information “hits” because they indicate that maybe I have hit upon something that is significant. Here are the steps for using this tool:

  1. Create a new Microsoft Word document based on this template and name it something like “Scanning Journal March 2011.”
  2. When you get a “hit,” assign it a “topic” and mark that in the “topic” box on the form. The topic can be whatever you want as long as it will help you identify the hit in the future. Note that the topic is not the same as the source title.
  3. Record as much data about the Source as you can—such as title, year of publication, pages, and date.
  4. Mark what Type of information this hit is an example of: Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, or Political (STEEP).
  5. Add three or four key words that will help you locate the hit in the future.
  6. Write a brief summary of the information. Here you want to jot down just the bare facts.
  7. In the box named “Significance,” write your interpretation of these facts. Why might this information be important for your organization?
  8. Copy the template table into your scanning journal each time you find a new hit.

Environmental Scanning Journal2

Hit Type (circle one): Social  Technological  Environmental  Economic  Political  Other
Key Words:


Total Weight:

Hit Weight 1-5


Where to Look?

You may be saying to yourself right now: “But I’m not an academic. I don’t know where to look.” That’s nonsense. We live in the most information inundaded world history has ever seen. You need to change that mind-set because there is an abundance of rich informational fruit out there ripe for the picking.

  • Start with general sources like newspapers, websites, blogs, wikis, podcasts, video libraries, news sites, newsletters, magazines, books, book reviews, presentations, reports, trend-scanning web sites, business-specific sites, government sites.
  • Conduct your own research by using surveys, interviews, and focus groups.
  • Spend some time in conversation with people in on-line chat rooms, talking with trend observers, advertisers, philosophers, sociologists, management gurus, consultants, researchers, experts, universities.

An environmental scanning journal is an excellent way to open channels of creative thought about the future of your organization. It is an important part of an overall strategy for planning for the future and evaluating past performance. It can help you identify issues that need to be addressed in your planning processes.

In other words, you can find valuable information anywhere. One word of caution, however. Don’t turn this into a molar extraction experience. Environmental scanning should be fun. That’s probably the most important principle of all. Use the environmental scan a an opportunity to think in new ways. If you approach it as an adventure, you’ll be surprised at how much fun in can be.


1 James M. Utterback, Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation (Harvard Business School Press, 1996) 155.

2 This matrix was originally adapted from one created by Wayne R. Pethrick. The reference to that source, however, has been lost. If you find it, please let us know.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.


Photo: Background Magazine Read Monthly by Unknown, December 12, 2015. Licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal.