Three Horizons – Collective Leadership for Scotland

Looks like a great initiative, and I highly recommend the Three Horizons model at this time.

We are using it in, too

via Week 1-2: Three Horizons – Collective Leadership for Scotland


Week 1-2: Three Horizons

Introduction to Week 1-2

We are launching the first of our themed “One thing at a time” weeks. We will be taking some time to reflect and focus on a theory or approach that is central to the Collective Leadership work. For the next couple of weeks we’ll be focusing particularly on Three Horizons. This work has been produced in collaboration with Graham Leicester from International Futures Forum.

The idea is that you can take this at your own pace and delve as deeply as you wish. You might simply want to read up a bit more, watch some YouTube clips to help you to get to grips with Three Horizons framework; you might want to take a bit more time and get involved in practising using Three Horizons and you may wish to participate in the offer of the 2 online live workshops; you might want to share a virtual dialogue walk with someone to talk it through in a bit more detail one to one. The level of involvement is up to you.

You can access all materials down below. Please do complete if you can the short scanning survey which we hope will provide a useful picture of how Scotland is changing now and might change in the future under the influence of the pandemic. You can sign up for the survey and for the follow-up online workshops below.

Video 1: Introduction to The Three Horizons

A short introduction by Kate Raworth (author of Doughnut Economics) on how to use Three Horizons thinking to frame the transition to a regenerative and distributive economy, including suggestions for workshop questions (video: August 2018)

Blog by Graham Leicester: Scanning the Covid-19 Landscape of Change

These are powerful times.  We face immediate and acute challenges alongside the inevitability of long-term shifts in patterns of living.  Systems, all systems it seems, are in transition.  When they come through this experience many will be radically changed.  We are embarked on an extraordinary learning journey.

Three Horizons (see below) is a simple framework for reading this landscape and keeping track of how it might evolve over time.

There is a flavour of Three Horizons already in the tendency to describe the journey through the pandemic in three phases:  from response, through recovery to renewal, for example.  Or, as others have it, ‘now, next, beyond’. Most of these three phase descriptions might just as easily be represented as three time horizons – short, medium and long term.  That is how the original Three Horizons framework made popular by McKinsey’s in the early 2000s was intended to be understood.

The framework becomes much more powerful, however, and more useful for anyone involved in the conscious pursuit of social change, if the three horizons are understood not as time horizons but as three qualities of the future in the present. The framework then provides a space to appreciate:  the unstable patterns of the past and the strains they are now coming under (H1), a sense of the opportunities for innovation and change that are accelerating all around us (H2), and also the potential for the present moment to act as a portal (to use Arundhati Roy’s language) to a very different future, founded on different values (H3).

There is always a dominant pattern.  This is the first horizon (H1), ‘business as usual’.  Its quality is managerial.  We rely on H1 systems being stable and reliable.  But as the world changes, or is disrupted for example by a pandemic, so aspects of business as usual begin to feel out of place or no longer fit for purpose.  Eventually ‘business as usual’ will always be superseded by new ways of doing things.

The third horizon – H3 – emerges as the long-term successor to business as usual.  It grows from fringe activity in the present that introduces completely new ways of doing things but which turn out to be much better fitted to the world that is emerging than the dominant H1 systems.  Its quality is hopeful – full of hope.

The second horizon – H2 – is a pattern of transition activities and innovations, people trying things out in response to the ways in which the landscape is changing.  Its quality is entrepreneurial.  Some of these innovations will be absorbed into the H1 systems to improve them and to prolong their life (we call this ‘sustaining innovation’ or ‘H2 minus’) while some will pave the way for the emergence of the radically different H3 systems (this is ‘transformative innovation’ or ‘H2 plus’).

The future emerges from the playing out of these three patterns of activity, the three horizons, over time.

IFF has been using Three Horizons as a scanning framework to capture how these three patterns and the interaction between them is changing week by week during the pandemic in a number of sectors, capturing learning as we go. What are those at the forefront of the action noticing about the frailties and failings of H1?  What are the innovations springing up in H2?  What are the signs of hope that out of this crisis a better world – H3 – is possible?

Many assume that there will come a time, after the immediate response phase and as we enter ‘recovery’, when we will get to take a look around at what has happened and decide which changes to keep, which to discontinue, what to retrieve from the past that we need to revive and so on. The default set of assumptions underpinning those decisions will come from the past.  We may keep something because ‘it works’ – but all we know is that it might have worked in the past and did work in the pressure cooker environment of the crisis.  Will it work in the future?  Is it an aspect of the future we aspire to create?  Those are different questions.

In other words, without a sense of where we want to go, our own third horizon, we will inevitably – and largely unconsciously – privilege sustaining over transformative innovation.  We will not realise the full potential of this moment for significant change.

That is why it is important to notice the H3 activity already manifest in the present.  These are the actions that inspire and encourage us, give us hope, demonstrate that there are rich human values that can be expressed in heart-warming action.  These are the seeds of the future to which we aspire.  Bill Sharpe, in his book Three Horizons, calls H3 ‘the patterning of hope’.

Scanning using the Three Horizons framework will give us a good picture of our starting position:  Where are we?  What is the nature of the landscape we are in and that we might encounter ahead?  And also, in the form of these glimpses of H3 in the present, a good sense of our direction of travel:  Where do we want to go?  What are the values we want to privilege through the transition?  What is the third horizon pattern we aspire to realise in the future?

IFF has developed a set of resources for guiding us through this journey of system transition in a time of great uncertainty and change.  It includes taking notice of some of the archetypal dynamics we are likely to encounter along the way, ways in which the three horizons often interact with each other over time.

The Smooth Transition is a managed and gradual process, without significant shocks, discontinuities or resistance.  More common are the other variants, all of which we can see in play just now.

Collapse and Renewal is characterised by increasing resources poured into an unsustainable H1 pattern, which eventually fails and gives way to a new H3.  We see this dynamic at present, for example, in the huge investment in keeping the existing economy on life support in the hope of ‘recovering’ it.

Capture and Extension involves the H1 pattern absorbing innovation in order to extend its life, without any significant change in the underlying system.  This might be seen at present in moving the existing school curriculum online without questioning its continuing relevance.

Investment Bubble occurs when investors (of time, money, attention, other resources) act as a herd in deciding that ‘this is the next thing’.  This leads to over-investment in a single idea that cannot in the end satisfy all its backers.  The recent paper Exit Through the App Store about our investment in the idea of a tracking app to get us out of lockdown points to an H2 bubble likely to burst.

There is a useful table exploring what the wise H1 manager and the determined H3 visionary should do if they become aware of these dynamics.  It turns out that in all cases the watchword for the H1 manager is to maintain diversity (always have options), and for the H3 visionary to maintain integrity (hold to the vision, don’t compromise it).

To return to the beginning, the first step is to get a sense of our starting position – to map the new landscape appearing around us.  A simple way to get started is to distribute a short online sampling survey, ideally repeated at intervals, to tap into what people are noticing and how they are feeling as the patterns shift around them. If you want an example, please try the survey we have set up below.

By mapping the landscape in this way, when the time comes to take stock, to decide what to keep, what to stop, how to move into recovery and renewal, those decisions will be informed by an explicit view of the future, the values we wish it to embody, and the evidence from the present that such a world is indeed possible.