“Three Horizons: a pathways practice for transformation”, co-authored by Bill Sharpe of NormannPartners and the International Futures Forum, describes a novel pathways approach to futures thinking. The approach is underpinned by a simple framework for structured and guided dialogue around patterns of change: the first horizon is the established pattern dominant today, the third horizon is the emerging future that will eventually replace it, and the second horizon is the zone of turbulent transition. These are not just short, medium and long-term futures, but also orientations to the future in the present. People can relate to them intuitively as the stance of the manager keeping things going, the visionary with a dream of the future, and the entrepreneur driving change. This method can be used to facilitate exploration of a complex and uncertain future, change attitudes towards where the future might lead and consider how to shape it. The research is based on ten years of experience of using the practice with a wide range of public and private sector organisations, including the UK Govt. Office for Science & Technology Foresight Unit.
Three Horizons in context of futures thinking
Three Horizons, as a pathways practice, sits alongside forecasting, scenario planning and roadmapping as methods to explore the future. Each have strengths and trade-offs regarding how well they deal with complexity, allow for multiple alternative futures or generate agency to shape the future.
In traditional forecasting, such as weather and economic forecasting, the future is generally conceived of as being an extension of the past.
In traditional forecasting and planning approaches, such as weather and economic forecasting, the future is generally conceived of as being an extension of the past and is predictable within a set of known sources of variation, even though such changes may be very hard to model or understand. By their nature, these methods assume the structure that underpins the past will continue in the future. In a situation where the context is turbulent or uncertain – when good foresight is most needed – that structure is liable to change.
Three Horizons, by contrast, works well with both uncertainty and diverse perspectives, while still providing space for the kinds of imagination and creativity needed to consider transformative change.
One of the strengths of the practice is the possibility for use alongside scenario planning or other futures thinking. It can be grasped easily and deployed quickly, and so is a useful exercise to introduce futures based thinking into any organisation, or to build up to a larger futures project.
Scenario planning actively seeks out sources of uncertainty and keeps them visible in ways that challenge the assumptions on which current activities are based. The output of a scenario planning project is a set of different scenarios that highlight critical uncertainties by using distinct stories or visual representations of alternative futures.
Scenario planning actively seeks out sources of uncertainty and keeps them visible in ways that challenge the assumptions on which current activities are based.
In a recent exploration of the future of carbon pricing for an international institution that had convened a high-level expert group, Three Horizons was used primarily to frame the problem and identify critical unknowns. These unknowns were then explored in greater detail using dilemma thinking and scenarios.
The other great strength is the ability to improve the quality of dialogue about transformation, and change organisational thinking about how disruptive processes will alter the context and the organisation itself. Three Horizons is therefore a valuable tool to improve strategic conversation within an organisation.
Summary written by Kamran Lamb
Senior associate at NormannPartners. Expert in science and technology futures. Has worked as an independent futures expert since 1999.