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Three Horizons: the patterning of hope
Decision Integrity Ltd
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How to Read the Three Horizons Model
The three horizon model gives us a deeper understanding of the significance of what we usually call short, medium
and long term futures. The model is based on the observation that businesses, technologies, political policies and
even whole civilizations exhibit life-cycles of initiation, growth, peak performance, decline and even death. These
cycles can be viewed as waves of change in which a dominant form is eventually overtaken and displaced by
These displacements may be gradual but, in times of rapid change, they can be quite abrupt. For example, we
speak of disruptive technologies that suddenly reach a tipping point and take over the technological ecosystem.
However, a closer look reveals that these waves are also going on simultaneously on different scales, changing their
place in the foreground or background over time. Yet this is not easy to see unless we appreciate the qualitative
differences between the waves. Understanding is further helped by recognising the value of thinking in terms of
three waves at a time.
A good way to picture this is to switch from the analogy of waves and think instead in terms of horizons. Imagine
you are looking at a view from the plains near the coast towards inland mountains. The first horizon is where the
plains end and the foothills of the second horizon rise. Yet behind them are the high mountains of the third
horizon. The plains may be agricultural, the foothills wooded and the mountains without trees and with glaciers.
Each horizon is qualitatively different. The analogy here is that we need to be able to see different qualities that
distinguish the short, medium and long term as more significant than the amount of time. In some industries, the
three horizons may cover a span of ten years; in others they may span half a century. In other words qualitative or
structural change is more significant for strategy than span of time.
Three Horizons in the
Pockets of future in
The Three Horizons
We usually label the vertical axis as ‘Prevalence’, which captures the idea of the shift in the most
dominant, or prevalent, pattern shifting between the horizons over time. The prevalence is a
reflection of the strategic fit to emerging conditions, and so this is an alternative labelling.
The first horizon - H1 - is the dominant system at present. It represents ‘business as usual’. As the
world changes, so aspects of business as usual begin to feel out of place or no longer fit for purpose. In
the end ‘business as usual’ is superseded by new ways of doing things.
Innovation has started already in light of the apparent short-comings of the first horizon system. This
forms a second horizon - H2. At some point the innovations become more effective than the original
system – this is a point of disruption. Clayton Christensen called it the ‘innovator’s dilemma’ –
should you protect your core business that is on the wane or invest in the innovation that looks as if it
might replace it? Meanwhile, there are other innovations already happening that today look way off
beam. This is fringe activity – pockets of the future in the present. It feels like it is a long way from
H1, based on fundamentally different premises. This is the third horizon - H3. It is the long term
successor to business as usual – the radical innovation that introduces a completely new way of doing
The effectiveness of Three Horizons comes from recognising that the three horizons are not just
abstract representations of change, but characterise three qualitatively different orientations to the
future in the present – they describe ways people are behaving to maintain the first horizon or seeking
to change it.
• How we get things done today – ‘locked in’
• Incremental innovation framed by familiar approaches and dominant actors
• Quantitative sense of time as limited resource
Pockets of the
future in the
• Transformative shifts from the present, questioning assumptions, new actors
• Emerging patterns of value, many alternatives
• Qualitative sense of time as defining moment
• Looks both ways
• Zone of innovation and turbulence
• Sense of time as opportunity cost – need for trade-offs
Normative Version: Challenge and Transformation
Defined as strategic fit or harmony with the
Horizon 1 is a current strategy that works well until
changes in the environment plus its own diminishing
returns put it on a curve of decline. Meanwhile
Horizon 2 , aware of this in diverse ways is innovating
more effective approaches which eventually overtake.
In the background, a completely new paradigm is
emerging as Horizon 3. It appears for a long time to be
marginal and ineffective but since it matches better the
new environment it eventually takes over. The Horizon 2
innovations have served as enabling to the transformation
Variations on Normative Model
The previous normative model assumes a number of enabling conditions that make for a relatively smooth transition.
Even so, each crossover point is a disruption in the sense of a structural change, but if anticipated and managed, the
displacement is lower in cost and better in performance. This is why it is called Challenge and Transformation.
The Transformation is from the initially dominant paradigm (H1) to a structurally different paradigm (H3) through
an innovative phase where the old is being phased out and the new is being phased in (H2). Horizon 2 is essentially
an innovative phase which is endeavouring to restore or transcend the performance of Horizon 1. This can only
happen if (a) the innovation is relevant and strong (referred to as H2 plus) and (b) the first horizon constructively
gives way to the improvements. If this doesn’t happen we get two additional variants:
Variant 1 – Collapse and Slow Recovery
In this variant, Horizon 1 becomes the victim of its own success and over-confidence, believing that innovation is
only for efficiency and failing to pick up signals of environmental change and the tendency for diminishing returns.
Equally the innovative culture is weak and fails to address the environmental changes, inventing “more of the same”
(referred to as H2 zero) The result is an accelerated expansion followed by a sudden collapse. The better fit of
Horizon 3 has been languishing in the background and with the failure of the innovative phase takes much longer to
emerge as the next pattern of viability.
Variant 2 – Capture and Extension
In this variant, Horizon 1 recognises the “writing on the wall” but motivated to retain domination it looks for
innovations from H2 that it can use to bolster its performance and extend its life. This is called capture and the
situation of Horizon 2 is referred to as H2 minus. Eventually the changed environment prevails and the background
Horizon 3 has its chance to come through with a better strategic fit.
The Three Horizons Variant One:
Collapse and Slow Recovery
In this variant the supremacy of the Horizon 1
paradigm creates runaway success but at the expense
of some critical condition. Failure to capture coupled
with weaker innovation in Horizon 2 leads to sudden
collapse. Horizon 2 is unable to make up for this.
In the background Horizon 3 continues to develop
and after the initial upset and chaos of the collapse
demonstrates its ability to match the new conditions
and emerges as the next viable paradigm.
The Three Horizons Variant Two:
Capture and Extension
Horizon 1 is challenged by changing conditions and there is
strong innovation opportunity taken by Horizon 2. However,
each wave of innovation is captured by Horizon 1 and applied
to extend its life. This may go on for several cycles.
Horizon 3 remains in the background since it is so
different from Horizon 1 that there is no place for it in the
mainstream. It continues to languish in the margins until a
much more fundamental and long term change occurs.
The Three Horizons as Cultures and Mindsets
The interaction between the horizons is as much culturally determined as it is economic or technologically
determined. The people and groups associated with each horizon at a given point in time have very different
interests, values and mindsets. This makes communication difficult and the tendency for misunderstanding and
conflict very high. Indeed, there is competition between the horizon mentalities and in some cases outright
war! This is why we more often than not see Variants 1 and 2 rather than the smother transition of the
However, in managing strategic change, where we want to avoid the costs of conflict or collapse, it is
necessary to develop a perspective that understands all three mindsets and takes them into account. The
challenge for strategic leadership is to be able to stand back from a fourth position to be able to see the
interplay between them. This is most easily studied as the kinds of attitudes and judgements that people from
each of the horizons make about each other and each other’s activities and priorities.
The situation when this tool is used is usually the one represented by the shaded zone in the Normative
Version. In other words, a dominant Horizon 1 that is challenged; a rising wave of innovation; and largely out
of sight to the mainstream some developments (like seeds) that might sprout into something quite different
and more suited to the new conditions.
All three mindsets are present in the situation simultaneously, either isolated or in conflict. The strategic
leader then has the task of getting them to talk to each other and work towards collaborative transition for
transformation. The initial stances of each mindset towards the others is caricatured in the following diagram.
From Strategy Dialogue to
Horizon Negative Mindsets
Horizon Positive Perspectives
Using Three Horizons
We typically introduce the horizons, and think about the way the dynamic changes between
them over time, in this order: H1 – H3 – H2. This is because without a third horizon it is
impossible to make the distinction between ‘sustaining innovation’ (H2-) and ‘transformative
Starting with the first horizon brings into view why the conversation is happening, why it is felt
that the current ‘business as usual’ can no longer make the changes needed. Moving to the third
horizon we talk about our own visions but also all the other alternative and competing views of
the future of which we are aware. This is a chance to surface underlying assumptions and
different value systems, and where power to shape the future lies. Real examples populate the
‘pockets of the future’.
In the second horizon we identify initiatives underway and how they relate to sustaining and
transformative change. As we develop the third horizon picture more then we can also start to
see the role of the first horizon in the future. Usually, once we have been able to let go of it and
move to the third horizon we find there are important things that must not be lost and can be
adapted to the new environment.
The example map comes from IFF work on education. See:
What would a future system
What evidence do you see
look like and what values and
around you that suggests the
norms would support it? What
current system is under strain,
long term trends are driving
Fit to the a decreasing fit to the
towards these changes?
knowledge, and societal
requirements, or is even
failing? (Horizon 1)
What innovations do you know
about (anywhere in the world)
that might be growth points of
the future system? (Horizon 2)
What examples (from anywhere
in the world) do you know about
where elements of the future
What role will today’s H1 play in
systems you have described
already exist? (Horizon 3 in the
Example: Three Horizons Map
H3 pockets of the
future in the
H1 role in the