Foresight vs. Planning Horizons

One way to think about foresight within the context of your normal planning activities is to see foresight and planning as having two distinct “horizons.”  Your planning horizon is what we might call your “action” horizon; it is the time frame across which you are willing to commit to specific actions.  In contrast, your foresight horizon is like your “thought” horizon, being the time frame along which you are thinking about possibilities and uncertainty.  Figure 1 below illustrates this distinction.


Figure 1: Foresight vs. Planning Horizons

Logically, no matter how short or long your action horizon (x), your thought horizon is going to be longer.  Why?  Because action today or in the near-future always ends up positioning you for whatever ends up coming next.  No matter how short a time frame you think you can take informed action on, that time frame is always nested within a longer and larger context.  Commitments made today always play out – for good or ill – in consequences over a longer period of time.

Now, when we add a futures perspective to Figure 1, adapting my particular version of the “cone of uncertainty,” then the picture begins to look like Figure 2, below.  Here we see not only the time frames x and x+y, but we also now see the concept of alternative futures illustrated for the foresight/thought horizon.


Figure 2: Foresight vs. Planning Horizons, with the cone of uncertainty

Depending upon the sector and industry, the cone of uncertainty that defines the foresight/thought horizon will be more or less asymptotic, illustrating the rapidly expanding number of possible futures relevant to the organization.  This view of the planning/action and foresight/thought horizons better illustrates why, no matter how short your action horizon might be, you still need to explore a separate, longer thought horizon.  Depending in part on the nature of your sector or industry, the cone of your foresight/thought horizon may be describing a wide variety of possibilities, many of which may not be amenable to last minute course corrections or adaptions.

In any case, I think it’s useful to see your planning and foresight horizons as two distinct but overlapping issues.  This allows us to distinguish between the time frame within which we feel confident enough to make commitments and the necessarily longer time frame in which we need to be actively exploring and considering future possibilities.  The two are not the same and both should be addressed by organizations.


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