The Three Horizons Model
"When something occurs that gives us pause for thought about our present circumstances we tend to start a conversation about the future. Somebody might have presented us with a tempting opportunity. Or a colleague might have been ‘let go’ during hard times. Or we might have read a report on climate change suggesting recent weird weather patterns are a sign of things to come.
These snippets of information or experience make us question the present pattern of our lives. Our minds naturally fill with thoughts about possible future consequences. Should I take a chance and grasp the opportunity? What if I am next in line for the sack? Might it be time to start taking climate change seriously? What is naturally stirring in us is what I call our ‘future consciousness’.
We can see it stirring in group settings too, although it is rarely acknowledged. Imagine the following conversation, typical of what might take place in the Boardroom of an education department or agency about the enduring connection between poor economic and social circumstances and poor educational performance.
The depressing statistics are presented, going back over several decades. In spite of countless initiatives, the correlation between poverty and poor educational performance seems as solid as ever. It is not long before the Chairman voices a thought that many around the table are having. “Inequality is an intractable issue”, he says. “The link between poverty and poor attainment has been with us for generations. I really think we will still be here in ten years’ time discussing exactly the same issue.”
To some this sounds defeatist. A Board member with more recent experience in the classroom points to telling examples of small-scale projects which she knows have made a real difference. “If we had less hand-wringing and more action we could get behind these projects… and invent others. Of course the gap can be closed.”
This prompts a third person to speak up. “It is simply intolerable”, she says, “that in the 21st century, in a wealthy nation like ours, the circumstances of your birth still count for so much. I don’t think we can hold our heads up as a national agency effectively perpetuating a system in which poverty is fate. It is time to stand up and be counted.”
A passionate discussion ensues, ebbing backwards and forwards between the voice of concern (“I really can’t see things improving”), the voice of enterprise (“there must be something we can try”) and the voice of aspiration (“if we can imagine a world of radical equality then surely we can build it”). The perspectives seem incompatible. Accusations fly, particularly against the voice of aspiration, which is felt to be at odds with the real world. “If you really believe that’s possible, I want some of the pills you’re taking.”
Eventually, as lunch draws near, the Chairman brings the discussion to a close. He has been surprised by the passion released and a little concerned by the deep tensions the conversation has revealed. But he has not himself been persuaded to shift from his long-held view that when it comes to educational attainment, poverty is indeed fate and no amount of ‘innovation’ in the system will make any real difference.
Even so, he senses that something must be done, if only to maintain cohesion in the Board. So he duly records an intention to commission more detailed research into the causes of the problem, and to engage a specialist futures consultancy in a scenarios project in order to get a better handle on the long-term future. Passions subside and the Board moves on to the next agenda item: HR.
It is the contention of this book that the group did not need to engage a futures consultancy to have a conversation about the future. They were already having one. The strongly held views expressed were in fact different perspectives on the future potential of the present moment. Most such conversations naturally reveal three dominant perspectives. The Chairman has presided over the growing success of the dominant system but now sees nothing but trouble ahead. The entrepreneur senses in this the scope for new thinking, new ideas, new approaches and wants to try something different. The visionary, increasingly impatient with both views, wants to make a stand and press for radical action.
These positions correspond in our framework to three horizons – three possible patterns in which the present might play out into the future. All three are always present, in any conversation and indeed in our own thinking. Being able to identify them and work skilfully with them, in groups, communities, nations, and within ourselves, is a practice that we can all develop. It restores our sense of agency in the face of a future that is, and always has been, radically open. We call this Three Horizons thinking – in the service of the conscious practice of ‘future consciousness’."
Bill Sharpe: Three Horizons (The book)