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The Three Horizons Model was developed by Bill Sharpe of the International Futures Forumand provides a practical conceptual framework to help a team manage complexity and uncertainty and future-proof their thinking.

Thinking about the future is challenging – as ongoing change challenges what we know today, and our current ways of thinking become obsolete, it’s not easy to conceptualize what could lie ahead in the emergent future.  

When considering Horizon 1, we ask the team to consider what they do consistently, how they do it and why in their current situation. This horizon takes into account the day to day operations of the team and organization. We ask them to summarize this by drawing pictures, symbols or icons on a (virtual or real) whiteboard.  

As a next step, we skip Horizon 2 and move straight on to the other side of the whiteboard, where Horizon 3 is located. Horizon 3 is where transformational potential exists, imagining what could be possible if their best vision were to be achieved, using possibility thinking, taking into account their purpose (why they exist or what they believe about their contribution to society or the world) and the concepts they already hold about the future. This is the space of blue-sky thinking. Again, we ask them to summarize this in pictures, symbols or icons. 

Finally, we look at Horizon 2 in the middle – this is the transition point. Taking a future-back perspective to from Horizon 3 to Horizon 2the team maps out the journey between the two points, one step at a time. This is not a detailed roadmap, rather key activities.  Again, the mid-way points are depicted in pictures, symbols or icons. 

Then finally, the team returns to Horizon 1, and creates a step by step plan of key activities to get them from their current situation in the present, to Horizon 2. This is usually an exciting part of the process for the team, as they realise what they need to do and how their desired future is actually possible! 

The reason we don’t ask the team to move from Horizon 1 to Horizon 2 at the beginning is that the result would be small steps of continual improvement based on today’s world. But tomorrow’s world will be very different, and so this would be a short-sighted strategy. Moving from Horizon 1 to Horizon 3 via Horizon 2 is where real innovation occurs.  

It’s important that this exercise be dynamic, and that the team continually be evaluating what lies ahead in Horizon 3, by staying alert to information that is available today or becomes available, and adjusting where necessary. For instance, a pandemic was forecasted some time ago. Companies that were prepared for this eventuality were in a much better position than those who were taken unawares.  

The Three Horizons model helps teams define their future in the context of emerging trends, to explore the systemic patterns within which they currently exist and adapt these to ensure they remain adaptive and relevant.

Written by Barbara Walsh  

Learn more at The International Futures Forum or read Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope 

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