Intuition Taster: Fresh thinking

The Three Horizons model has been around for the past two decades but is now starting to gain traction in the further education sector. Lou Mycroft explains.

It’s hard to let go of something that’s worked before, but the times are broken,” says Michaela Greaves, curriculum operation manager for hairdressing and beauty therapy at Chesterfield College. “We need new ways of thinking, to plan for the future now.”

Amid the chaos and confusion of the Covid-19 pandemic, Greaves and her colleagues have been planning a ‘curriculum of hope’ for September, which they have named the Aspire Programme. They are using the Three Horizons strategic leadership model to win hearts and minds across the college for this new way of thinking.

“We are all changed by our experiences of lockdown and the time is perfect to start thinking in a different way about how we work with learners and each other, because we just don’t know what to expect,” she says.

Three Horizons is not new. It was developed at the start of this century by global management consultancy McKinsey to drive business innovation, and is having a new lease of life in uncertain times, particularly in local government where some of the most creative local authorities – Wigan, Doncaster, Leeds – are embracing its capacity to get them thinking differently.


Grand vision

In Three Horizons thinking, you figure out where you want to be – and nothing is off-limits. This is Horizon 3. The next step is to look back at where you’ve been: what can you learn from where you are now (Horizon 1) that is valuable and worth keeping? From then on, all discussions take place in the space between those two horizons: the Horizon 2 landscape, where there’s plenty of room for movement.

“Three Horizons is useful as a notation,” explains Jackie Rossa, executive director, student experience, at Chesterfield. “It helps us navigate our thinking. Aspire is about putting wellbeing at the heart of a whole-college approach which gets the best out of us all, and we need Three Horizons if we are going to be agile enough to implement this in what is bound to be an unpredictable and challenging new academic year.”

Any model is only as good as the way it’s used, and the breakthrough at Chesterfield came from using the Pixar Storyboard process in Three Horizons sessions with staff. “Every Pixar film tells the same story once you break it down,” explains Greaves. “This is a great way to do Three Horizons thinking, because you already know at the start what your happy ending will look like. Pixar Storyboards are going to be a big part of induction. We want students to have those lightbulb moments for themselves, as they think of their own aspirations, where they are now and what might get in the way.”


Overcoming uncertainty

Chesterfield College is not the only provider using Three Horizons to navigate uncertainty. At Barnsley College, former director of teaching and learning Stef Wilkinson used the process with curriculum managers.

“I wanted managers to take a fresh look at their teams,” Wilkinson explains. “People naturally gravitate towards different horizons: powerholders (Horizon 1), innovators (Horizon 2) and visionaries (Horizon 3). A great team has all three making effective use of the tension between them and I hoped that curriculum managers would see their team differently, looking through this lens. I set out the model for them and sent them off. They came back buzzing!”

Using the Three Horizons process got Barnsley’s curriculum managers thinking not just about practical issues but about the culture and practices of their curriculum, asking themselves how they wanted students to feel about the provision on offer: its emotional wake. “It helped them maintain some energy and momentum around visioning,” says Wilkinson. “It was powerful online, but it would have been brilliant to have done this in person.”

Both Barnsley College and Chesterfield College took practical ideas from Public Health Wales’s Three Horizons toolkit, which presents three ways to use the notation. As well as the Pixar Storyboard and the Voices (or Teams) approach used at Barnsley, the toolkit also includes example questions to tease out potential journeys to the elusive third horizon (see Fig. 1 below).

Greaves warns against overcomplicating things. “There are plenty of planning models which tie your thinking up in knots by considering the risks before you’ve got the idea out of your head. That’s no good for the challenge we’re facing here. We’ve got a window of opportunity to change FE for the better and it won’t stay open for ever. Three Horizons pushes us to look beyond everything that we take for granted.”

It should also help providers navigate the current uncertain times, believes Wilkinson. “This is not just about one-off planning, nor it is about setting up two different scenarios: physical and digital,” she says. “We have to be prepared to move between the two, long term. Although some people naturally find comfort in the thought of returning to what we had, those days are gone. A regular Three Horizons practice helps us create something new, which is responsive to the times.”


Lou Mycroft is a writer, educator and TEDx speaker. She works on the #APConnect project for the ETF.