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We so often struggle to articulate our innovation activity and then can’t project our plans into the future in consistent and coherent ways. If this rings true of the innovation activity in your organization, then it is in danger of being seen as isolated, one-off event, that failed to link to your organizational strategy. Furthermore you’ll be missing out, or not capitalizing on emerging trends and insights where fresh growth opportunities reside.

To become increasingly alert to social shaping, as well as emerging technology and discoveries that might lead to new horizons, we need to connect our ‘today’ with ‘possibilities’ in the future. These options, which are often emerging, can be challenging as they offer both conflicts and uncertainties for our innovation future. The way to counter concerns is to build an ongoing dialogue across the organization to frame your innovation needs across the entire innovation / business portfolio.

The value of applying the Three Horizon Methodology for Innovation

Thinking in different horizons prompts you to go beyond the usual focus of fixing innovation just in the present. The Three Horizons Methodology connects the present with the desired future and identifies the ‘seen’ disruptions which might occur in moving towards a vision.

This first emerged in the late nineties through the work of Baghai, Coley and White (1999) and has been further developed by a range of practitioners such as Andrew Curry, Anthony Hodgson and Bill Sharpe (2008) and the International Futures Forum, based in Scotland.

This methodology lends itself well for mapping out the different horizons for innovation, the discipline I focus upon to help organizations work through this, often quite tough set of conversations.

It requires a certain amount of ‘letting go’ as well as ‘embracing’ a future that still may have many uncertainties that can really challenge our established mindsets. Its value - if well managed - can offer a helpful way for a significant series of dialogues and tensions to surface, but through this engagement and respect for different positions you can find mutual ways of connecting your innovation activities over different horizons, and managing uncertainty in better ways as a team or organization.

The Three Horizon framework is about having strategic conversations about the future and feeds the conversation about your innovation direction and longer-term portfolio and capability understandings.

Exploring across the Three Horizons - each horizon needs a different thinking frame

We need to clarify how to identify the existing prevailing or dominant system and the challenges to its sustainability into the future, i.e. the case for change (horizon 1). Innovation can lose the ‘fit’ aspects over time as the external environment changes.

We also need to think through the desirable future state, the ideal system you desire and the emerging options. Those that can displace what you already have. Often you can identify elements in the present that give you encouragement (horizon 3); keeping yourself open to all options that could lead to transformational change.

Often the struggle is to draw out the nature of the tensions and dilemmas between vision and reality, and the distinction between innovations that serve to prolong the status quo and those that serve to bring the third horizon vision closer to reality (horizon 2); This is the space of transition, often unstable, called the intermediate space where views can collide and diverge.

We work this framework in a specific sequence of H1 – H3 – H2.

There is a good reason why we look at H1, then H3 and then H2 in that order. Horizon two is the toughest one, as it needs to balance between today’s existing innovation and those seen as important to the future. H2 is you transition horizon, one where you need to learn, to gather, to pilot, prototype, place limited bets and investment to learn and adjust as you work towards improving your understanding and knowledge for making the ultimate move of managing what is or shaping in horizon three. To get there, you will adjust, pivot and constantly reshape as you learn and experiment. This is the value of this horizon 2 as you work out how the landscape is changing and requiring constant adjustments. The horizon 2 tends to work on those sustaining innovation (h2-) and those transformative innovations (h2+).

There are always plenty of uncertainties to map and resolve

Clearly it’s not acceptable to stay still and be good at what you already do and expect this to just continue out into the future. We need to consciously evolve in how to counterbalance today’s business needs with new business opportunities offered out in Horizons 2 and 3. These are providing you with a more robust innovation portfolio of options under investigation and development. 

Having different perspectives will enhance your innovation activities

The 3H framework offers a perspective that accepts the need to both address the multiple challenges that occur in the first horizon, foster the seeds of the third and, allocate appropriate focus and resources to manage the transitions from one to another.

What makes the model valuable to innovators is that it ‘accepts’ that competition is restless, markets are evolving, and that change is a constant. The three horizons approach offers the methodology for constructing plausible and coherent innovation activities projected out into the future. It looks for emerging winners.

This is not a planning tool; it is providing a valuable evolutionary perspective that dialogues can be formed around so decisions on where to focus and what resources to apply can be made on a more plausible and coherent set of activities projected into the future, searching for emerging winners that can change and challenge your existing business.

The need is to address the challenges in horizon one and nurture the seeds of the third. It is not an either/or, good/bad discussion. You need those robust discussions to form fresh perspectives. The key is in listening out and becoming adept at managing these conversations between the ‘voices’ of the three horizons.

The three voices that need to be in the same room

  • The different voices involved can be highly engaged, all wanting to add their perspective. You have the voice of today, the manager(s) responsible for delivering todays result that are more concerned with managing the existing, maximizing returns and keeping the organization going efficiently and effectively.
  • Then you have the second voice, the voice of the entrepreneur, the one eager to experiment, try out new things, explore and extend, accepting some aspects will not work
  • Last we have the third voice, of the aspirant, who is looking to build a different vision, believing in different, more pioneering ways and visualize things in their ‘mind’s eye’, far more aspirational, that can seemingly on first ‘take’ look to be totally incompatible to the reality of today.

It is the combination of these different three voices that need to come together and frame the innovation journey by using the three horizons framework.

Associated with this introduction is an opening and downloadable introductionary deck from the HYPE resource centre under ...

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Paul Hobcraft

Paul Hobcraft

Paul Hobcraft researches and works across innovation, looking to develop novel innovation solutions and frameworks where appropriate. He provides possible answers to many issues associated with innov