Week 1-2: Three Horizons

Introduction to Week 1-2

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 (video recording of session 2 available below); 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. 

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 1 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.

Video 2: The Framework in More Depth

An elegant and comprehensive introduction (30 mins video) to Three Horizons from Bill Sharpe, author of Three Horizons: the patterning of hope.  Recorded at a workshop for the Luc Hoffmann Institute.

Blog 2 by Graham Leicester: Three Horizons, Covid-19 and Scotland

‘One thing at a time’ has chosen to focus on Three Horizons as a useful framework for making sense of the unfolding impact and potential of the pandemic – to generate insight and to move to effective action.  Our workshop on 7 May produced a fascinating map of the landscape of Scotland facing the challenge and potential of Covid-19 (see above – or download the full pdf here). 

As readers will know from my previous post, IFF has been using Three Horizons as a scanning framework to capture learning about how the landscape is changing week by week in a number of sectors.  What are those at the forefront of the action noticing about the frailties and failings of our first horizon systems – present concerns and troubles in store?  What are the innovations springing up in the second horizon?  What are the signs of encouragement and inspiration that out of this crisis a better world – H3 – is possible?  What are people starting to hope for?

We opened a simple 15 minute survey to gather this kind of observation from a wide spectrum of the Collective Leadership for Scotland community and have so far gathered nearly 40 responses.  

We mapped those responses on to the Three Horizons framework in advance of a workshop on 7 May.  This was an opportunity to describe and explore the framework and the scanning process.  We also spent some time working on the resulting map to improve it.  The results are shown above.  

The map is formed by collating the results of the survey into five boxes:

  • Concerns about the dominant system;
  • Innovations springing up or coming to attention as a result;
  • Aspirations expressed about the future, where we hope to be in 3 years’ time;
  • Changes that are hopeful and inspiring and have an emotional quality to them (indicating that the future we hope for might indeed be realisable); and
  • The things about the existing first horizon system that we hope will survive the transition, usually values like reliability or equity.

The summary version, highlighting just the cluster headings, is perhaps easier to read.  

On 7 May we started with the survey results.  Participants were then invited to take a look at the resulting map and suggest how to improve it.  

Some of the suggestions concerned particular policy areas, notably education.  Others were more general, highlighting aspects such as the physical and psychological safety of staff, the need for wide engagement in thinking about the future, or an attitude to innovation that does not need to seek permission.  

Once we have a map of the landscape we can then start to process it.  A mature approach to system transition will both address the concerns expressed about the failing H1 and move the system over time towards the aspirations of H3, building on hope and encouragement in the present. 

The both/and nature of this work means that we are always faced with choices in the H2 transition zone.  It helps to identify the pivotal shifts in thinking and practice that will characterise the difference between supporting and improving the old as against fostering and growing the new.  

Workshop participants considered this question and suggested the following pivotal shifts in thinking (shown on the full map above):

  • A broader view of relationships and agency, beyond traditional ‘service delivery’;
  • More time for slower thinking and reflection;
  • Shifting to enabling conditions for life rather than services to address problems;
  • A shift to collaboration and cooperation;
  • Moving beyond either/or and polarisation;
  • Better feedback;
  • Holding our nerve for what is transformative;
  • In education, getting beyond ‘assessment’;
  • Fundamental shift in foundational assumptions.

We closed the session by telling simple stories of the transition, based on the Pixar formula:  ‘Once upon a time…  Every day… Then one day… Because of that… And because of that…  Until finally…’.  This is a quick and easy way to capture the essence of a Three Horizons conversation – and should have everyone leaving the room with a hopeful story to tell.

Finally, a question in the survey about ‘What’s Missing’ reveals a cluster of elements that will be useful for making the transition:  leadership, strategy, citizen engagement, trust, hope and so on.  These are now recorded on the map to complete this first pass through the material and its subsequent elaboration in the group. 

Altogether this was a very rich session and has produced a fascinating map of the territory for how Scotland is experiencing Covid-19, what we hope might lie beyond and how we can make the journey.

What’s Next?

Naturally, with a map in hand the next step is to plot a course and set out on the journey towards our desired third horizon.  That will be the subject of a follow-up workshop on 28 May.

We encourage people to start making a map of the Three Horizons landscape for themselves, in their own sector or organisation.  Five simple questions are sufficient to start filling the five boxes on the map – and a subsequent group conversation can improve and build on it from there. Please contact the collectiveleadership@gov.scot if you need any suggestions or practical support.

The workshop on 28 May will explore how to find the promising pathways through this landscape towards our desired third horizon and then how to follow those pathways effectively in practice.  

This workshop will draw on some of the other content from the survey not used so far, in particular questions about the ‘value tensions’ that are showing up in the landscape, eg between short term emergency response and longer term recovery; between the importance of rapid action and the equally important need for thinking and reflection; or the need to recover the economy and to ‘build back better’.  And so on.   

The essence of making a conscious system transition over time is both/and.  These are not choices but dilemmas.  They are not trade-offs or choices – we need to honour both values.  We need both to save ourselves in the present and move towards a better future, keep the lights on today and make sure we can have light in the world that is emerging, redesign the plane even while keeping it safely in the air.  

That will be the subject of next week’s workshop – working with the issues, tensions and dilemmas that people have uncovered in their own sectors and professional work, finding the yes/and pathways and setting ourselves up for action.  Practical hope and wise initiative, as IFF puts it.  We look forward to seeing you there.

Three Horizons Workshop 2 - Recording

Follow-up Resources for Workshops 1 & 2

Our Three Horizons workshops have now passed. However, you can now access resources for our workshop 1 and 2 below. The resource packs include slidepacks, survey results and a Three Horizons map for Scotland.

Resources for Workshop 1

Slidepack of the first Three Horizons Workshop

Results of the Covid-19 Pandemic Reflective Learning Survey

Scotland and Covid-19 – A Three Horizons Map of the Landscape

Resources for Workshop 2

Slidepack of the second Three Horizons Workshop

Recording of the second Three Horizons Workshop

PDF of the Mural showing the process over both Three Horizons workshops