The Three Horizons: Planning Innovation

The Three Horizons is a metaphor on which you can build an Innovation Strategy. It helps us move from the horizon of the status quo to a new horizon, in the distance. McKinsey consultants and others have for thirty years talked about the Three Horizons of Innovation.


Horizon One is the here-and-now, the initiatives that take up our time today.

Horizon Three is that far-off-feeling place of the innovations that the organisation needs to undertake to guarantee its future.

Horizon Two is the transition period where, in theory at least, Horizon One type activities are phased out as Horizon Three type activities take their place.

Rarely is that second horizon smooth, and most education innovations, in reality, fail to push the first horizon out of the field of vision of leaders, colleagues, parents or even students alike. Horizon One, that place of current politics and policies, getting through each day, each term, each school year and being content with having simply managed to keep on top of that, this first horizon might be described as the innovator's lead weight.

Nor are the one-time innovative activities of Horizon One necessarily worth keeping. In fact, in education, we have a perennial habit of snapping what we do in Horizon One and replacing it with equally unambitious or poorly thought through innovations that do not constitute the excitement and future-affirming feel of Horizon Three innovations. Or, more often, we try to shoehorn Horizon Three grand ideas into the confines of Horizon One's current thinking.

  1. Map out all the existing elements of the current way people work, on the top line of Horizon One.
  2. Map out the interesting innovations beginning to challenge the status quo, on the bottom line of Horizon One.
  3. Now ask what Horizon Three looks like - how much of the current position remains, and how have challenger ideas taken over?
  4. With that in mind, design an approach to Horizon Two: how long will it take to reach the point where new practices take over, and what are the issues you'll face along the way. This is an ideal time to undertake your pre-mortem.
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Ewan McIntosh

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