The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

looking forward

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While few would dispute that our actions influence the future, it’s also the case that our view of the future affects our actions. That’s why we often work with our clients on their future stories: it’s an integral aspect of narrative for a change. So of course we jumped at the chance to go along to a workshop run by Wendy Schultz at Wolfson College, Oxford about an exciting futures tool called Three Horizons. In fact we covered four futures workshopping tools.

Three Horizons explores:

  1. the current dominant business (or other) model – business as usual, if you like. Think of it as the realm of the manager.
  2. imagined futures – a world turned upside down by new values, developments and technologies. Think of it as the realm of the visionary.
  3. an intermediate space – characterised by a great deal of conflict and creativity. Think of it as the realm of the entrepreneur.

The order is important in which you explore these three horizons is important:

  • Starting with how things are now, and, crucially, how we got to how things are now, surfaces assumptions and acts as a reminder that it wasn’t always like that. It opens the mind to the inevitability of disruptive change.
  • Moving on to imagined futures provides an energising contrast and provides an opportunity to let your mind roam wild. Here more than anywhere else it’s helpful to have a really diverse group of participants who to come up with new ideas and challenge each other.
  • Concluding in the entrepreneurial space encourages participants to consider the implications of their imagined futures for their business or organisation, to identify weaknesses and areas of potential.


We used the music industry to have a go with Three Horizons. We began by putting together a timeline based on our own personal memories. We soon began to surface the disruptive shifts over the past several decades.

Causal Layered Analysis is a kind of archaeological approach to the future! It involves a lot of digging. To be more specific:

  1. You start by identifying the symptoms of the issue you want to explore (we used the UK’s housing crisis for this). Think of the symptoms in terms of the buzz around the water cooler.
  2. You then examine the underlying systems (in the case of housing in the UK, stamp duty, planning regulations and the availability of mortgages would fall under this heading).
  3. The next step is to consider the world view – the values and cultural icons from which the systems are derived (for example, that owning is better than renting, that owners look after their properties better than landlords/renters).
  4. Finally you look for the metaphors and myths that make the systems resonant by working at the level of archetypes and emotions (an Englishman’s home is his castle, the Three Little Pigs).

Each of these layers will suggest a different set of solutions. The more profound the change you want to bring about, the deeper you need to dig. In October 2012, Sparknow, together with The Futures Company and Infinite Futures, ran a causal layered analysis on the future culture of financial institutions in the UK.

Verge is an approach that focuses on a different set of issues:

  • the concepts, ideas and paradigms we use to define the world around us
  • social structures and relationships that link people and organizations
  • the technologies used to connect people, places and things
  • the processes and technologies through which we create goods and services
  • the ways in which we acquire and use the products and services we create
  • the ways in which we destroy value and the reasons for doing so.

Futures wheels take an issue and ask you to extrapolate from it just like you’d create a mind map. The concentric layers that result form a kind of radial timeline.

These tools are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. For example, you could run a causal layered analysis to explore the managerial realm of Three Horizons. Or you could use the issues in Verge to help construct a futures wheel.

There are many more futures and horizon-scanning tools out there and if you’re interested in pursuing the topic further, a good source of information is Foresight’s Horizon Scanning Toolkit.

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