FSG Blog
November 2, 2021

What is Horizon Scanning? And what does it really tell us about the future?

Patrick Marren and Gerard Smith
FSG Principals

Business is full of impenetrable jargon. It’s also full of familiar-sounding terms and phrases, the meanings of which have been strangely altered by consultants. “Horizon Scanning” is one such phrase. Some time ago we were invited to present on the topic to a group of business leaders. Here are some of the most important insights we shared, culled from our strategic planning and foresight work with leading organizations. 

So, when thinking of Horizon Scanning as a component of strategic planning or foresight, a few key questions come to mind:

  • What is “the horizon”?
  • How do we scan it?
  • What are we actually scanning for?

Horizon Scanning Defined

The horizon is the farthest point at which warning might come of future threat or opportunity. The threat or opportunity could arise across any number of dimensions. It could be physical (e.g., a specific new process, product, or technology breakthrough in, say, China or India). It could be temporal (e.g., the earliest point in time at which a competitive threat or opportunity could be manifest). It could be societal (e.g., a trend that begins to catch on that could either render your product or service obsolete – or make it hotter than ever). Or it could be governmental – for example, regulations that could cause your organization trouble – or give it a competitive advantage.

Now the key to defining the horizon is basically looking for the farthest point in time and space at which warning of a key change could manifest itself. 

How do we scan the horizon and what are we looking for?

To address these questions, we emphasize six key points:

1. It’s important to know what your organizational leadership needs to know – and not merely what leadership thinks it needs to know. You will need to brainstorm the universe of threats and opportunities facing your organization. (The best way we know how to do this is by developing alternative futures, and working our way back to the “visible” horizon.) Is there a decision that your organization will be forced to make (or might want to choose to make) as a result of this threat or opportunity? This is the difference between “Nice to know” and “Need to know.” 

Note: If a horizon scanning activity is part of a larger strategic planning effort, planners need to map out how the scanning information is integrated.  In an alternative-futures planning exercise, for example, scanners might relay intelligence gained to the team charged with developing scenarios to ensure that they are sufficiently broad, relevant and challenging. The scenario developers can then move beyond the horizon to imagine the even broader array of plausible more distant future strategic eventualities.

2. Come up with early warning indicators for each threat or opportunity. Again, brainstorming can be your friend. Use your imagination: What events or facts could indicate that the threat or opportunity in question may be in the offing?  Make a list of these indicators for each threat or opportunity.

3. Set up an early warning system for each of the indicators you identify. You may need to prioritize the threats and opportunities due to resource constraints. Prioritize based on the impact of the potential threat or opportunity – not the probability. 

4. Report regularly to leadership on the early warning indicators you have identified.

5. Regularly reassess the list of threats and opportunities to ensure that they contain the ones that are really important. You WILL be wrong — it’s called learning, and you only learn from your errors.

6. Since the metaphorical horizon for your organization is in some senses infinite, the scanning team should include people who see the world differently, who are curious about a range of eclectic and even offbeat topics, and how these issues intersect.  In short, you need people with qualitative intuition to complement the more standard quantitative and subject-matter expertise you also must have in-house.

Final Thoughts on Horizon Scanning

Horizon Scanning needs to be a regular, high-value source of valuable insight and fresh thinking to leadership. Regular briefings to decision-makers and strategic planning teams are essential. 

Finally, while there is already a large and growing number of digital scanning tools available, human judgment and imagination remain at the heart of it. After all, you need to first imagine the “horizon” and the threats and opportunities before you can ever scan for them. 

As Albert Einstein once said, “I am enough of [an] artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”   

Blog Sign-Up

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

5 thoughts on “What is Horizon Scanning? And what does it really tell us about the future?”

  1. Subject matter expert (SME) interviews are an underappreciated but essential component of Horizon Scanning. We have found our own imaginations pushed and stretched by talking with original thinkers, often outside our clients’ immediate scope of interest. For a State Department project years before COVID-19 we heard from public health experts about the pervasive and devastating consequences – from vaccine shortages to supply chain disruptions –
    of a global pandemic. A decade ago, during a scenario planning project in emergency management we heard dire warnings from medical practitioners about shortages of PPE and ventilators. While it’s true that these kinds of insights can be gleaned from traditional literature searches, SME interviews often trigger more spontaneous and usefully speculative conversations, especially when off-the-record or not-for-attribution rules are established.

  2. Strange word horizon:
    1. The apparent intersection of the earth and sky as seen by an observer.
    2. The limit or edge of the observable universe.
    3. The range of one’s knowledge, experience, or interest.
    The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

    The first definition begins with the word “apparent” suggesting an illusionary quality with that illusion being in the eye of the observer. We each it would seem perceive our own unique horizon. The second definition extends the first to the limit of the observable universe expanding the content to all that it is possible for any observer to know. The third, to be conceptually complete shrinks it all the way down to the personal existential limit of any individual observer. It would seem that one’s horizon depends on where one is, where one could be and where one has been.

    • Robert
      Indeed – it is a strange word, and it is used strangely in this context. All three of the definitions imply something that can be seen or known – and yet the whole idea of horizon scanning in this context is to explore beyond what can be seen, leaving us to consider what can be imagined. This is a reflexive exercise, where what we can imagine to some extent guides what we’re looking for, and at the same time what we can see on the horizon focuses the sorts of things we might imagine.

    • For some things, the horizon could be far beyond our apparent horizon; for others, it could be under our feet or on the other side of the earth. Of course, it is most often conceptual, not geographic, which is why “apparent horizons” can fool us so often. The horizon we are used to watching will almost never produce true strategic surprise. For decades the “horizon” for U.S. geopolitics was the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. Since that went away, it’s fair to say we have struggled to figure out what our true “horizon” as a nation is. Is it now a rivalry with China? Is it in cyberspace? Is it within the United States itself? All of these and more?


Leave a Comment