Navigating the Future: The Three Horizons Framework for Innovation

16 November 2023

In today's ever-evolving business landscape, staying ahead of the curve requires not just adaptability but also a strategic vision that extends beyond the immediate horizon. One powerful framework that can guide your business toward sustained growth and innovation is the "Three Horizons" model. Developed by McKinsey & Company in the 1990s, this framework helps organizations balance short-term objectives with long-term goals and navigate the complexities of strategy. In this blog post, we'll explore the principles of the Three Horizons framework, break down each horizon, and provide practical insights on how to apply it to your business.

Navigating the Future: The Three Horizons Framework for Innovation

The Importance of Innovation in the Three Horizons Framework

Innovation is the lifeblood of any organization's growth and longevity, and it lies at the heart of the Three Horizons framework. While Horizon 1 focuses on optimizing existing processes, it's innovation that breathes new life into these processes. Horizon 2 is all about exploring emerging opportunities, which often stem from creative and forward-thinking ideas. And Horizon 3 is the realm of disruptive innovation, where companies future-proof themselves by envisioning and investing in groundbreaking technologies and concepts. In a rapidly changing business landscape, innovation isn't merely a luxury; it's a necessity. It's what allows companies to remain competitive, adapt to evolving customer needs, and seize untapped markets. By strategically integrating innovation into each horizon, businesses can effectively leverage the Three Horizons framework to not only thrive today but also ensure a vibrant future.


The Resource Allocation Puzzle: Balancing Today's Demands with Tomorrow's Innovation

For many entrepreneurs and management teams, the allocation of resources in a business often resembles a conundrum. The day-to-day demands of running operations and meeting immediate needs can consume all available time and energy, leaving little room for long-term strategic thinking. It's a scenario that's all too familiar – when everything appears to be going smoothly, innovation and long-term planning often take a back seat. After all, why fix something that doesn't seem broken? It's only when challenges arise or the competitive landscape shifts that the urgency to innovate becomes painfully clear. Unfortunately, by that point, it can be a costly, last-minute scramble to save the situation. To address this dilemma, companies must impose structured thinking, and that's precisely where frameworks like the Three Horizons come into play. They provide a roadmap for not only balancing the present and the future but also for fostering a culture of innovation that can proactively shape the business landscape. In this blog post, we'll delve into the Three Horizons framework, offering insights on how to start and structure this crucial thinking to safeguard your company's future success.


Understanding the Three Horizons Framework

The Three Horizons framework is a strategic planning tool that divides an organization's focus into three distinct horizons, each with its own characteristics and objectives:

Horizon 1: Safeguarding and Fortifying the Core Business

The Three Horizons framework is a strategic planning tool that divides an organization's focus into three distinct horizons, each with its own characteristics and objectives:

The initial horizon of growth entails the safeguarding and enhancement of your core business operations. Think of it as the realm of business-as-usual activities. For instance, in the case of a retailer, this encompasses the day-to-day objectives associated with selling, marketing, and servicing your products and customers.

Other instances of Horizon 1 initiatives might involve improving existing products through upgrades, introducing new features, or expanding the range of services tied to your current product offerings. It could also entail the introduction of subscription models for existing products or the launch of new services such as customer support, technical assistance, or digital marketing. The primary objectives in Horizon 1 are directed towards boosting profit margins, streamlining existing operational processes, and augmenting short-term profits.

Horizon 1 (H1):

  • Horizon 1 represents the core business activities that drive your organization's current revenue and profitability.
  • It involves optimizing existing processes, improving efficiency, and maximizing the value of your current products or services.
  • In terms of resource allocation, McKinsey suggests that around 70% of your current endeavors should be dedicated to Horizon 1.

Horizon 2: Cultivating Emerging Business Ventures

The second horizon of growth revolves around nurturing and cultivating new revenue streams that extend from your existing resources and capabilities. This phase is dedicated to experimenting with fresh approaches in response to market shifts, focusing on innovations within your existing market or the exploration of new markets altogether.

While there might be initial investments associated with Horizon 2 endeavors, these investments should yield predictable returns, given that they are extensions of your established business model. Examples of strategic initiatives in Horizon 2 could encompass the introduction of new product lines or geographical expansion. Some of these initiatives may eventually become part of your business-as-usual operations, while others might serve as precursors to entirely novel strategic ventures under Horizon 3.

Horizon 2 (H2):

  • Horizon 2 focuses on emerging opportunities and initiatives that have the potential to become significant revenue streams in the medium term.
  • It involves exploring new markets, developing new products or services, and experimenting with different business models.
  • Allocate approximately 20% of your resources to Horizon 2 to foster innovation and growth.

Horizon 3: Pioneering Truly Novel Business Frontiers

The third and most distant horizon within the strategic planning framework is characterized by long-term objectives and investments that hold groundbreaking strategic or competitive significance. Typically spanning a decade or more, Horizon 3 is centered on generating growth opportunities, venturing into new markets, and committing discretionary investments to capitalize on these prospects.

For instance, your organization might invest in the development of entirely new products, the research and development of cutting-edge AI or automation technologies, or the creation of innovative services. This could also entail endeavors such as research projects, pilot programs, or the establishment of entirely new business units through mergers and acquisitions. Horizon 3 represents a forward-looking approach that positions your organization to seize emerging opportunities and secure a lasting foothold in a rapidly evolving business landscape.

Horizon 3 (H3):

  • Horizon 3 is all about preparing for the future by identifying disruptive trends and breakthrough innovations that can reshape your industry.
  • It involves exploring radical ideas, investing in research and development, and positioning your organization to seize long-term opportunities.
  • Allocate the remaining 10% of your resources to Horizon 3 to fuel long-term innovation and maintain relevance.

The Origin of the Three Horizons Framework

The Three Horizons framework was introduced by Baghai, Coley, and White in their book "The Alchemy of Growth." This approach was developed as a response to the challenge of balancing short-term performance with long-term innovation, and it has since become a cornerstone of strategic planning for organizations worldwide.

Applying the Three Horizons Framework in Practice

To better understand how the Three Horizons framework can be applied in practice, let's consider some real-world examples:


  • Horizon 1: Amazon's core business revolves around its e-commerce platform, with continuous efforts to optimize the shopping experience.
  • Horizon 2: The development of Amazon Web Services (AWS) represented a significant Horizon 2 opportunity that has transformed the company into a leading cloud service provider.
  • Horizon 3: Amazon's investments in drone delivery and autonomous vehicles exemplify Horizon 3 efforts, positioning the company for future disruptions in the logistics industry.


  • Horizon 1: Apple's focus on improving the iPhone, iPad, and Mac product lines represents its Horizon 1 efforts.
  • Horizon 2: The introduction of the Apple Watch and the Apple Pay service are Horizon 2 initiatives that leverage existing strengths in hardware and software.
  • Horizon 3: Apple's secretive development of autonomous vehicle technology illustrates Horizon 3 thinking, preparing for the future of transportation and mobility.

By strategically allocating resources across these three horizons, these companies have not only maintained their market leadership but also positioned themselves to adapt to changing landscapes and capitalize on new opportunities.

Exploring Other Innovation Frameworks

While the Three Horizons framework is a powerful tool for fostering innovation, it's just one of many approaches available to organizations seeking to drive creative thinking and breakthroughs. Some other notable innovation frameworks worth exploring include Design Thinking, Lean Startup, and Open Innovation. Design Thinking places the user at the center of the innovation process, emphasizing empathy and iterative problem-solving. The Lean Startup methodology advocates for quick experimentation, learning from failures, and agile development. Open Innovation encourages collaboration with external partners, startups, and communities to tap into a broader pool of ideas and expertise. By combining elements of these frameworks with the Three Horizons model, businesses can create a comprehensive innovation strategy that's well-equipped to meet the demands of today's dynamic markets.


Integrating Innovation Frameworks with Three Horizons

To truly supercharge your innovation strategy, consider integrating complementary frameworks like Design Thinking, Lean Startup, and Open Innovation with the Three Horizons model. Design Thinking brings a deep understanding of user needs to Horizon 2, ensuring that emerging opportunities resonate with customers. Lean Startup principles can expedite the testing and development of new ideas in Horizon 2, helping businesses validate concepts quickly. Open Innovation extends the reach of Horizon 3 by tapping into external expertise and technologies, accelerating the adoption of disruptive innovations. By combining the strengths of these frameworks, your organization can cultivate a culture of innovation that's not only responsive to market changes but also proactive in shaping them. This fusion of methodologies offers a holistic approach to innovation that propels your business into the future while maintaining a firm grip on the present.

Unlocking Your Strategic Potential with The Digital Bunch

At The Digital Bunch, we understand the challenges that businesses face when it comes to allocating resources, nurturing innovation, and crafting a strategy that balances the present with the future. We're here to assist you in navigating this intricate landscape. Our team specializes in organizing workshops that dive deep into your company's strategy, marketing, growth, and innovation. Through structured sessions and expert guidance, we help you unlock your strategic potential and harness frameworks like the Three Horizons to chart a course for sustainable growth and innovation. Whether you're looking to revitalize your approach, adapt to changing markets, or position your business for long-term success, our tailored workshops can provide the insights and strategies you need. Reach out to us today to discover how we can collaborate and propel your company toward a future filled with possibilities.

The Three Horizons framework is a powerful tool for strategic planning that allows organizations to balance short-term stability with long-term innovation. By dedicating the right resources to each horizon, you can ensure your business thrives in the present while preparing for the challenges and opportunities of the future. Remember, 70% in Horizon 1, 20% in Horizon 2, and 10% in Horizon 3 – this allocation can help guide your path to sustainable success in a dynamic business world. If you're looking to harness the potential of this framework and transform your business strategy, our interactive and marketing agency is here to assist you on your journey toward success. Contact us today to explore how we can collaborate to chart your path across the Three Horizons.

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