Don’t get caught staring at the third horizon

Don’t get caught staring at the third horizon

On Wednesday last week I submitted the final edit of my forthcoming book to the publisher. This morning, I remembered a story that should have been in there. It’s really an amalgam rather than a single story, and it comes from the times I have worked with other futurists, not as the person conducting an exercise to examine the future, but as a participant in someone else’s exercise, contributing some domain knowledge or insight.

Futurists often use a ‘three horizons’ model when working with clients to develop and explore a view of the future. The first horizon is the near horizon. Stuff that is happening right now. The second horizon is the near future – say, the next two to five years. The third horizon is the more distant, emerging future.

The big challenge with clients used to be ‘How do we stop them thinking about business as usual?’ How do we break their thinking out of that context to focus on this emerging future? It’s not easy. It often takes time and a flood of new information to force people to leave behind the constraints of today. Getting people to focus on the third horizon, filtering out those things on the first and second, is one way of doing this. And it’s a valuable exercise, as long as you are aware that change on the second horizon can completely destroy all of your assumptions about the third.

Twice in the last five years I have found myself in sessions where the moderators of the session were focusing the client on the third horizon but failing to accept just how close, and just how powerful, some potential disruptors might be.

High frequency change

The whole point of my book on high frequency change is to show that there is a new type of change affecting people and organisations today. One that in a narrow context – a single industry or company – is utterly disruptive on scales only previously experienced at the third horizon. This high frequency change moves at such speed that it is only visible on the second horizon at best – maybe only when it is right on top of you.

As I explain in the book, very few organisations have any formalised capability for radical adaptation to immediate threats. Planning is based explicitly on a business-as-usual model because they are trying to meet near-term performance goals. They don’t have much time to think beyond the next quarter. Shunt threats into the third horizon and they get treated as issues for long-term strategy. By the time they are addressed it is too late.

Negative effects

In the sessions I attended, focusing exclusively on the third horizon without first considering the context-shift created by events on the first and second, had two negative effects.

Firstly, existential threats that the client should have been considering immediately were either dismissed as being part of ‘business as usual’ or time-shifted onto the third horizon.

Secondly, the assumptions on which they based their consideration of the third horizon challenges and opportunities were all wrong. Because they would be utterly transformed by second horizon impacts that would have blown them to pieces.

Without wanting to disrupt someone else’s exercise, I made my case for this in both sessions, and in the follow-up opportunities. But it’s very hard to pivot when you have your methodology laid out for the day.

Framework failure

There’s nothing wrong with the three horizons model itself, in any of its variations. Versions of this idea are used by those in business to work out the intermediate steps to where they want to get to, and likewise by economists like Kate Raworth to map the disruptions that might take us to a more just economy. But when it is used as the basis for a foresight exercise, it’s no longer good enough to focus clients exclusively on the third horizon in an attempt to break them out of business-as-usual thinking. We can only consider the third horizon when we have appreciated the shift in landscape that will be created by the second.

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Tom Cheesewright