NOTE: This article is Part 1 of 3 of our Visualizing Horizons series.
When an organization approaches us to ask for guidance on strategy development and planning for their future, we often look into what’s in the current state that’s straining the future state. We explore the basic operating assumptions about an issue, or their organization, and then explore the impacts of short, medium, and long-range change: What impact might these changes have? What insights from data on trends, emerging changes, and potential effects on current and future states?
These types of conversations have heightened our team to work on integrating future sensing into leadership practices. Helping leaders anticipate the future will empower building organizations, assist in strategic planning, better articulation of directions, and engage employees in the change efforts. This article will discuss an approach to thinking differently about an organization’s future and how leadership teams can identify areas for change.
Three Horizons Thinking
In a simple framework developed by Bill Sharpe of International Futures Forum (IFF), Three Horizons thinking is really more of a conversation guide to get people thinking about current assumptions, emerging changes, as well as possible and desired futures. This framework is a foresight tool that helps guide thinking about the future in ways that define change efforts and spark innovation. In the context of any transformation, there are three horizons to explore:
- Business as Usual – the dominant way of doing things today
- Emerging future – the desired future
- Disruptive and Innovation – the new ways of doing and being
The goal of the framework is to drive conversations toward uncovering the following:
“What is being born, and how can we help it arrive well?
What is dying, and how can we help let it go or leave well?
What is being disruptive, and how can it be harnessed?”
Imagine the horizons as persons – Business as Usual horizons is the manager’s voice expressing what is working or not working in the current system, aiming to have the least disruptions to operations. The Disruptive and Innovation horizon is usually the entrepreneur’s lens, wanting to try something different, often expressed out of urgency or frustration. Finally, the Emerging future is the voice of the visionary – expressing dreams and deep aspirations and a push towards sustainable transformations.
Thinking about the future means learning to think differently.
We encourage exploring horizons in fluid and facilitated conversations to allow for a more productive exchange of ideas. Here are the sequential 12 questions that you can use to prompt the flow of this thought process:
- What are the critical characteristics of the organization systems today?
- How did we get here? What values and cultures led to this?
- Why do we believe it is not fit for purpose and failing?
- Is there anything valuable about the old system we would like to retain rather than lose?
- What are the critical characteristics we want to bring about in the future? What would it look and feel like to be there?
- What are the seeds of the future visible in the present?
- Looking back, whose work are these present possibilities built on? What are history, values, and culture embedded within them?
- How could these seeds of the future be scaled and spread?
- What are competing visions of the future pursued by others? Could we collaborate with them on a shared vision? If competing, how do we prevent their vision from derailing ours?
- What innovations are already disrupting things? How can we help them grow?
- What are the roots of those disruptions? What can strategically be done to ensure that it is harnessed?
- What kind of guidance can you set up for yourself to help influence disruptions?
We see the Horizons, now what?
Now reflect on what you mapped as responses to the questions. The next step is to determine your strategic initiatives and programs of transformation or change and what things you need to get there. Some reflection questions can include:
- Which assumptions will be most challenged by change?
- Will any become obsolete in the face of changes identified?
- How can we use emerging changes to create, enhance, or diversify products and services offered?
- What changes provide the most promising and actionable opportunities?
- Will another business model be necessary to replace a challenged model or the way we work?
The goal of the reflection is to map out any transitions for your organization that may bridge the gap between your current state and future states.
The result of your reflection may lead to three (3) types of changes:
- Changes that are “Wide and Near”: Multiple futures that can happen in a short-term period.
- Changes that are “Narrow and Far”: Visualizing focused and specialized futures may take longer.
- Ideal Horizon: Visualizing a desired future.
Once these changes are identified, you deepen the conversations to see how you can operationalize and manage the changes considering the resources necessary, efforts for execution, and timelines.
What is the benefit of using a framework in visualizing futures?
- It develops system thinking for employees, leaders, business owners, and other stakeholders involved in the visualization. The framework guides discussions that require seeing things as systemic patterns, not just events or trends influencing an outcome.
- It creates opportunities for alignment of purpose, strategy, and culture. These are 3 levers necessary for impactful change.
- The guided conversations result in the co-exploration of opportunities for growth and impactful change management.
- It builds collaborative action. Visualizing possible futures from different horizons’ perspectives can bring value into future sensing conversations in a way that fosters future consciousness for transformation.
- Convening futures build awareness of the different and flexible perspectives on each horizon.
- Holding a facilitated conversation in your organizations can pave the way for cultivating a culture of innovation from within.
Any visualizing horizon exercise aims to tap into opportunities that may lead to transformational results. The goal is to capture possibilities for transformations that are relevant and impactful toward a desired future.
“Transformation happens as the emergent result of everything going on in the world — there is always an emerging third horizon at every scale of life from the individual to the planet and beyond. Some things will be the result of conscious intent, others will surprise us for good or ill. The way we live now was once the third horizon, partly imagined and intended, largely unknown. Future consciousness will not bring the future under control, but allows us to develop our capacity for transformational response to its possibilities.” — Bill Sharpe (2013)
The Importance of Assessing Change Readiness
Visualizing Horizons: A Guide to Facilitating Conversations on Your Organization’s Future
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