Careers advice: The importance of 'horizon scanning' to future leaders

27 July 2021

In this month's blog, Alumni Careers Manager Caroline Egan explores how you can develop the ability to 'horizon scan'.

Our Global Alumni Engagement team recently hosted a webinar for alumni from a corporate partner on the subject of business resilience post-Covid. As a result, I’ve noticed more and more articles and webinars focusing on the assessment of and future of risk management, particularly in the context of how countries have dealt with the pandemic.

Although this trend grew from the need for forward planning at the highest level of government, and from risk management for business, I have also been reflecting on how this is a skill which business leaders (as well as aspirational leaders) need to embrace.

There is no doubt that in the increasingly complex and volatile world in which we find ourselves, the ability to ‘horizon scan’ is a real asset to managers and leaders, and is likely to increase your value to your business now and your value personally in the job market of the future.

Here are some of the keenest insights I’ve gathered on developing the ability to 'horizon scan':

  • Be prepared to use horizon scanning to change your mindset, challenge your assumptions and be open to more possibilities. Horizon scanning is not just about predicting the future - it’s also about finding out more about the trends that already exist but of which you may not be aware.
  • Keep an open mind: don’t look for what you already know or want - scanning is not the same as searching. This may seem contradictory but it is one of the hardest aspects of horizon scanning. It is more about asking the ‘unasked questions’ or identifying what you don’t know.
  • When you identify a forward trend, identify a champion amongst your stakeholders - the major challenge for horizon scanning analysis is in overcoming cultural resistance. Emerging or weak trends usually don’t point to obvious action. They may fall into gaps that are not well explained by current models and the data supporting them may not be clear-cut. Established businesses often have difficulty embracing this kind of ambiguity and you will need a compelling story and internal support to explore it further.
  • Invite challenges to your own way of doing things. There is no magic recipe for how to do horizon scanning but watch out for thinking that the way you do it is the best and only way. Asking other teams or outsiders to review your work is a great way to introduce new approaches and get constructive criticism of your horizon scanning activity, as Gareth Southgate famously practises with the advisory board to the England football team.  
  • Create a diverse team in every sense - use a broad mix of ‘generalists’, ideally recruited from very different experiences to gain as wide a perspective as possible in your brainstorming/ ideation creation sessions.
  • To make sense of the potential trend consider:
  1. What could be going on here?
  2. What could it lead to?
  3. What additional facts would be consistent with this trend or challenge it?
  4. What is the belief underpinning this trend that challenges your existing beliefs?
  5. Is there a missing piece of information that could confirm or accelerate this trend?
  6. What pattern of signals would validate it?
  • Think about the need to demonstrate likely impact - focus on describing the outcomes and potential benefits of your analysis, rather than the process or detailed content.
  • Seek (and analyse) data to support your evidence base - a systematic and comprehensive scanning process provides a degree of robustness which is important for the credibility of your idea. Analyse data sets but also look for outliers or data which may be predictive of other/ future trends.
  • Remember that uncertainty and risk or opportunity are not the same thing: it is possible to calculate the risks of taking a new path (and easier to persuade stakeholders to back your idea) through for example, a small pilot project or trial for a limited time/investment to assess its impact.

The ability to be ‘intra-preneurial’ in your thinking has long been sought after by recruiters. Horizon scanning and predicting future trends is a useful addition to your existing skill set, and one which is ever more current in the ‘VUCA’ business environment we all inhabit.

If you want to continue your professional development, or upskill to remain competitive in the job market, WBS Executive Education offers the Warwick Executive Diplomas including one in Strategy and Innovation. These are a suite of flexible programmes, designed to offer immediate impact and long-term development for both individuals and organisations, and which attract a 25% alumni discount.

If you are a member of the WBS alumni community and you need support with your career or professional development, please contact