It’s about time …

Time turns out to be a difficult subject to handle, especially when we are trying to make sense of what is lying ahead, when we are talking and thinking about the future. We often feel a sense of puzzle and confusion, an uncomfortable element of surprise. In Alvin Toffler’s famous words:

The future always comes too fast and in the wrong order.

It seems that we are lacking common tools for thinking about the future in a coherent manner. And that’s exactly where I see tremendous value in Bill Sharpe’s work on Three Horizons. In a small volume published about a year ago he summarises his thinking on the concept and the language for thinking about the future.

Essentially, Sharpe proposes a concept of the future that has three horizons. Close to our home base, the first horizon (H1) is where we are today, it is framed by the dominant forces of today, which are likely to prevail into the near-term. In the distance, the third horizon (H3) is about our far-term vision of where we want to be. From this understanding of the near- and far-term, the importance of the second horizon (H2) is obvious. It shapes the transition in the medium-term, paving our way from where we are to where we want to be.


Sharpe’s concept gives us the means to talk about different time horizons and how our actions today can influence the future, whether sooner or later. This concept emphasises the presence of the three horizons at any point in time, thus forcing us to observe the future in a new way: rather than progressing in one linear unescapable flow, the future develops from several strands that coexist in an evolving pattern: H1 dominates the near-term, but aspects of H3 and H2 are already “on the horizon”; H3 rules the far-term, but shadows of H1 and H2 still play a role; and H2 shapes the medium-term, building the bridge to get us from H1 to H3.

Time and timing are of course critical to innovation in may different ways, hence the Three Horizons provide an important tool for a more comprehensive understanding of innovation. In hindsight, I can see a number of time-related aspects that I touched upon, often only implicitly, in previous posts like expectations and realities. Or think about the desire for stability against the need for change.

These and many other facets of innovation take shape against the backdrop of the Three Horizons. By adding an additional perspective, this concept can help policy makers cope with the complexity of innovation and its ways to unfold over time. It can furthermore can support innovators in anticipating some the constraints and limitations, the challenges they will face, and when they will face them.

I feel that a clear idea about the evolution of innovations over time is an essential component of innovation literacy. And the Three Horizons can convey that clear idea. Today I just scratched the surface to introduce the concept, and I believe it’s worthwhile to explore it further and deeper. More to follow …


P.S. I’d like to give credit to paul4innovating’s blog, because that’s where I got my first glimpse of the Three Horizons. That post, together with a number of others on the same subject (check here and here), has certainly inspired my thinking.


  1. Beautifully said – as brilliant as ever!

  2. Like you this is such a useful, if not powerful way to think through any transformation into the future. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on the 3H, an area I put a lot of focus

    • Thanks for the encouragement. I’m currently still getting my thought into some structure and flow, to roll them out over the next few weeks. So stay tuned …

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