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Tools for long term thinking

September 6, 2017

As practitioners of strategy in the context of the future, we at SAMI have always instinctively believed that this approach is better than strategy with a good view in the rear view mirror. Views of the future allow you to think long term and make informed decisions for the long term.

What tools are there to improve thinking about the future?

A tool that is useful for thinking about factors that could cause the organisation’s assumptions to change (drivers of change) is Three Horizons. It is quickly adopted by groups of people and is often combined with a “looking back” exercise in which the group relates to their organisation, industry or country twice as many years in the past as the group is going to think forward – ethnographers suggest that change in the future will be twice as fast as in the past. Three Horizons is the subject of a book by Bill Sharpe.

Horizon 1 takes into account the current working assumptions and systems that we take for granted when we make decisions.

3 Horizons

  • Example – the ongoing trend for decreasing family size, for migration, and for people to live longer, causes us to re-examine our assumptions on demographics.

Horizon 3 is about changes emerging that are completely new paradigms and ways of understanding and undertaking various human activities. What are visionary leaders saying?

  • Example – The World Business Council for Sustainable Development believes that nine billion people can live well on the planet.

Horizon 2 is about drivers which represent a transition or accommodation for evolving tensions as current assumptions and work patterns obsolesce, and transformative changes affect industries and markets.

  • Example – the CEO of GM, Mary Barra “I believe we will see more change in our industry in the next five to ten years than we have in the last 50. We are at the start of a technological revolution that is going to change the way we drive and interact with our cars, trucks, and crossovers”

Once you have used Three Horizons to identify drivers of change to build into strategy now (Horizon One), a tool for thinking about the effect this could have on your organisation, through customers, stakeholders, regulation, etc, is an Impact (aka Futures) Wheel. Starting from the driver at the centre, effects are mapped outwards. This is a structured brainstorming method used to organise thinking about potential impacts.

Futures Wheels are described in “Strategic Foresight” by Patricia Lustig .

Strat foresight tool

A tool that is explicitly designed to explore a range of possible futures is scenario planning. The strength of this is to create mental models and a shared language for potential futures. These can then get wider traction and help organisational self knowledge. For instance at a computer firm, two scenarios were developed for the industry:

  • Coral Reef, in which an exciting and innovative industry was represented by smiling clown fish, visible to customers and working with them
  • Deep Sea, in which an industry largely invisible to customers was treated with suspicion by customers,

These terms were used to discuss the changing nature of the industry – from Coral Reef to Deep Sea – to reshape the marketing and sales approach, and by account managers to discuss customers. The names were intuitive enough for those not involved in scenario development to find them useful, even without the full description, timeline, etc.

The process of scenario development has been described in a number of books nd articles, and one of the most succinct is on planning a primer.pdf .

Written by Gill Ringland, SAMI Fellow and CEO.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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