How to Do Horizon Scanning: A Step-by-Step Guide

Learn how to spot the emerging signals of change in your operating environment and future-proof your strategies.

October 5, 2021, Anna Grabtchak

Horizon scanning, also known as environmental scanning, is a foresight method used for discovering early signs of potential change. It is a systematic process that enables organisations to spot trends before they emerge into the mainstream and identify key action points to proactively shape desirable futures.

By conducting horizon scanning, you can:

  • Identify key drivers shaping your organisation’s operational environment
  • Understand important development themes and needs
  • Increase operational preparedness and organisational agility
  • Form a shared understanding of the potential threats, risks, emerging issues, and opportunities among your team
  • Create robust and future-oriented strategies.

Is horizon scanning new to you? Read our introductory article to familiarise yourself with the methodology and terms.

HORIZON SCANNING IN PRACTICE

There is no one commonly accepted guideline for conducting horizon scanning. The process should, however, include the main steps of 1) topic definition, 2) use of a framework that widens your perspective beyond horizons familiar to you, 3) scanning the environment to find various phenomena, such as trends, weak signals, and wild cards, to get an understanding of the changes in your environment.

Below, we describe Futures Platform’s methodology for horizon scanning.

1. DEFINE YOUR TOPIC

In the beginning, it is crucial to narrow down your topic. I personally like to do it by defining one to three research questions. Let’s make it fun and clear: you need a pencil and paper for this exercise. You can start by making a long list of all the crucial issues you need to be aware of. Then, try to find the common determinant in the background, which will lead you to the core question(s) you need to answer.

Using a different coloured pencil, write down the common topics that you can observe in several of the issues listed in your paper. Then, narrow them down by defining the common themes behind these topics.

Once you have your shortlist ready, define your research question(s) by selecting one to three topics. Next, phrase them in the form of questions and add a time frame, i.e. the year you want to focus on for your horizon scan. For example, are you interested in consumer trends in the near future or the structural changes in your industry in 2040? Use this question as the name for radar.

Empty radar

 


You can create visually engaging, interactive foresight radars for your horizon scanning activities on Futures Platform. Get started today and invite your teammates to collaborate.


2. BROADEN YOUR VIEW

One of the main objectives of horizon scanning is to broaden your perspective beyond what is currently on your radar. You can use a STEEP/PESTE framework to scan for the key strategical issues relevant to your industry from multiple angles.

Name the sectors on your radar according to social, technological, economic, environmental, political themes that can act as sub-questions for your primary research question.

Pestle radar

3. SCAN THE HORIZON

Search for phenomena related to each of the sectors you named in the previous phase. You should be able to add 6-12 different kinds of phenomena on your radar.

Radar with phenomena

4. ASSESS AND PRIORITISE PHENOMENA WITH YOUR TEAM

Involve your team members to vote for the phenomena on your radar. In this step, each member should vote for the phenomena that they find the most significant. Once the votes have been cast, remove the phenomena with low vote counts from your radar.

While the number of phenomena with low votes may differ from session to session, usually around 10-20% of phenomena are removed at this stage.

voting

5. ANSWER YOUR RESEARCH QUESTION

Next, focus on each phenomenon one by one and discuss them from your research question’s point of view. What answers can be found? What does this mean for your business, team, or products? What should you be prepared for? What opportunities can your organisation seize?

rating

6. FORMULATE ACTION STEPS

Based on your discussions, define the actions you would need to take to 1) avoid being surprised by the change, 2) use the change to your benefit, 3) create change that shapes the preferable future for your organisation. At this stage, it is important to prioritise things: Which actions can you already take? Which ones could you test/pilot during this or the next year? Which ones require a more significant amount of resources and can be planned for the next few years ahead?  Based on your answers to these questions, make an action plan with a defined timeline.

 

And you’re done! Congratulations! It is a time-consuming exercise, but no matter the result (usually quite eye-opening), just by going through the process, you improve your awareness of multiple future changes, which builds the base for futures thinking. That is a notable outcome relevant to your work environment, business viewpoints, and how you think about multiple alternative futures.

Horizon scanning is often the first phase of foresight activities. You can further utilise the results that you've gathered, for example, in scenario building or test them with a broader audience by using the Delphi method.


You can easily make horizon scanning a continuous activity with Futures Platform -  a digital foresight platform where you can scan for phenomena, collaborate with your colleagues, visualise your results and document your process all in one place.

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