In periods of uncertainty with pressure to act, tensions often flare from disagreement about what should be done. What at first may seem to be fundamentally opposed positions can often be revealed as perspectives seeking different purposes as they look at towards different time horizons. Bill Sharpe’s Three Horizons model is an accessible framework for bringing together the different needs of these perspectives into a cohesive narrative.

Horizon 1 (H1) focuses on the present system, prioritising action needed to maintain the status quo. All prevalent systems face the challenge of maintaining relevance in a changing world, so when taking the perspective of H1 we seek to prevent or delay the current system’s decline as it gradually loses fit for purpose. When seeking stability and order within the current system, we speak with the Voice of the Manager.

Horizon 3 (H3) is concerned with moving towards the next phase of maturity and development, prioritising action that brings us towards the desired future system they believe better serves emerging needs. When advocating for radical transformation and new ways of being, we speak with the Voice of the Visionary.

Horizon 2 (H2) is an entrepreneurial in-between space that lies between the ‘no longer’ and the ‘not yet’. This is an unstable space rich with possibility where waves of innovations are tested. Many of these will fail, some will be captured to extend H1’s viability, while others are harnessed as a bridge towards Horizon 3. When we advocate for action and experimentation to engage with emerging opportunities, we speak with the Voice of the Entrepreneur.

A graph of the three horizons as they become more or less prevalent over time

You’ll notice that even when H1 is most prevalent, H3 is still detectable. Similarly, as H3 comes into prominence, elements of H1 remain. Rather than needing to choose between these perspectives, the interplay between them as they dance together over time allows us to honor each perspective.

To begin making sense of these changing patterns, consider:

  • Where is business as usual losing its fit for purpose?
  • What is valuable and enduring within the current system that ought to be retained?
  • What visions of the future compel us to move forwards?
  • What seeds of this future are visible to us in the present?
  • What innovations are at play (internally and externally) that could be captured to extend H1 or harnessed to move towards H3?
Diagram aligning these questions to the interplay of the three horizons over time

Using the Three Horizons when assessing options and making decisions can break the dichotomy of needing to choose between keeping the lights on and moving towards compelling visions of what may be possible, and invites us to be explicit about how our experimentation might be captured to extend H1 or harnessed to bring about H3.