What can you do for your people, your customers and your organisation during times of crisis?

As an organisation, we provide services to our customers. We have a strategy. We have plans. Are these still valid in the time of COVID-19?  

We know we’re not alone in working through this, and we know not every business is in a situation where they have much in their control at the moment. There is so much uncertainty.

Because of that uncertainty, we are testing a simple Three Horizons of Change Playbook as a navigational tool to help ourselves explore what we can and should do for our people, our customers and our organisation through this time. In the spirit of experimentation and transparency, we invite you to try it out for your own organisation.  

Why Three Horizons of Change?


A few years ago, I was diagnosed with frozen shoulder. While common, it’s not a very well-understood condition, and there are many theories and treatments surrounding it. Google is not your friend if you’re trying to find answers. I was told that it would ultimately go away, but no one could tell me when. I was told I could do some things that might help, but there were many things out of my control. Feeling quite lost, a doctor told me something I could hold on to, something tangible that could guide me, even if it wasn’t an answer or a fix:

“I can’t tell you how long you will experience this. If I look at ‘typical’ experiences, It could last as little as six months, or as long as two years, and we don’t know why it goes one way or another. What we do know is that there are three phases you’ll go through, and we can’t predict how long each will take, but there are signals that will tell you where you are in the process.”

  1. Freezing Trying to understand and address the pain. A time of desperate reaction. You’re rapidly assessing what’s wrong, with acute pain that needs to be addressed. It’s hard to sleep, hard to concentrate, and you barely want to move your arm to protect yourself. It is consuming as you try to find answers and figure out what it is you’re dealing with, while not wanting to do anything at all that might make it worse. You’re in this phase at the start without knowing what you’re even dealing with. Once you do know, you’re hoping that you’re not in Freezing for very long, but knowing it shouldn’t last helps.
  2. FrozenUnderstanding the current boundaries and taking advantage of the range you do have. One day you’ll find you have no pain, and you can sleep again. Your range will be limited but the most important thing you can do is to take advantage of the range you do have and maintain it. When you lift your arm, you come to an invisible barrier. No matter how hard you try, you can’t move past it. Trying to push through has no impact. Your doctor’s advice is to live within the range you do have. Take full advantage of what you can do, or risk losing even more range. Things feel changed, but calm.
  3. ThawingRegaining some aspects of what once wasOne day you’ll discover that your arm will reach farther than it has in a very long time. You quickly realise that while you may be thawing, it’s not like flipping a switch. You have to put in a lot of work to push past the barrier, to stretch and strengthen. You have to work past the mental demons that tell you not to go too far or else it will hurt again. 


Each phase was a signal. If I was going to have frozen shoulder disrupt my life for an uncertain amount of time, at least knowing it wouldn’t be like this forever was promising. Even though there was a good chance I would never get my full range back, there was a chance I could.  It gave me hope and motivation to keep moving through it.

Creating a Playbook to guide us


While clearly different situations, the similarities with the frozen shoulder guidance were useful in thinking about what we are going through now. Using the three phases, we translated that into characteristics that can help us break down our thinking about what we could do with and for our people, our customers and our business. 

Horizon 1:  Shifting

This is the horizon we see ourselves currently in. We are in full reaction mode, as the pain of massive changes to our communities, families and organisations come at us with every press conference. We’re constantly trying to grasp what this is and what it will mean for us. There is little time to plan; you can only really react and decisions feel rushed. 

This is a time where we feel pressured to have it all figured out, while knowing the constant change makes it impossible to feel settled. We are trying to do our work and deliver our products and services in the way we always have, but we are confronted with the fact that that is either not possible due to constraints on ourselves or constraints and pressures put on our people and our customers.

Horizon 2:  Sheltering

This is the time when there is a little bit of calm. Things definitely aren’t back to where they were. There may be a better sense around the boundaries the restrictions make and how long our society and economy might be in a holding pattern. With the temporary certainty, there is a little space to think, plan and improve on the shifts that were initially made in haste and to plan ahead. 

This is a critical horizon to take advantage of, because of the temporary steadiness. We have to do two things:

  1. Push to the boundaries of what we can do now, to take up the space that is available to us to best support our people and our customers. Let’s show how we can deliver in new ways and we can respond to changing needs.
  2. Plan for Emergence, knowing that this will be another time of pressure and reaction. Will we want to be leading the way in how to open the doors or will we want to be waiting to see how others will do it?

Horizon 3:  Emergence

Signals will come trickling out. We’ll see other countries starting to come into emergence before us, so we will be watching in anticipation to see what they do. We might get signals within our own country that there is a willingness to ‘open up’ again. With this will come a surge of anxiety of distrust. Should we? How do we? Do we just go back to how we were? How do we need to change? What is normal? Since the signals will come from different directions, different speeds and have different meaning, the anxiety (and anticipation) will rise again.

There will be a propensity to go into reactive mode again, just as we were in Shifting. The advantage we have is knowing this horizon will come. This is why we must use Sheltering as a time to work through how we will take in data points and how we will make decisions.


Some assumptions we have using these horizons:

  1. We won’t all be in the same horizon at the same time.  This is a fluid framework that respects the fact that we will move into different horizons based on our geography, our industry, and our governments. 
  2. Signals of shift to the next horizon will vary.  Just as we are not in the same horizons, the reasons why we might shift to the next will be dependent on your industry, organisation and regulation.
  3. Each horizon offers up constraints that may breed or limit opportunity.  Some businesses may not be able to do anything during Sheltering other than prepare for Emergence due to regulation. For others, entirely new service models need to be stood up to be able to do business during Sheltering. Other industries are experiencing an unprecedented surge on demand with the original service they’ve provided and having to find ways to scale quickly.

Try the playbook out for yourself

If you’re struggling to figure out what you and your teams should focus on, or where to even begin, we invite you to test out these horizons in your context. Sign up to get The Three Horizons Playbook, and we’ll also be hosting a Zoom session to walk through the playbook and share ideas for how to use it.

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