Boost your digitalization: horizons model

4 min readAug 21, 2022


Image by Gidon Pico from Pixabay

One of the most common questions I get when discussing digitalization of an industry and a company operating in that industry concerns resources. The typical line of argument goes along the lines of agreeing that it is relevant and important to explore digital solutions for the company, but that unfortunately no resources are available to be allocated to this. The current business or businesses are consuming all the resources in the company and we can’t free up anyone to work on innovation.

The fundamental misconception is that it is reasonable for the current, dominant revenue generator to consume all the resources available in the company. Often the argument is used that this business is the one generating all the revenue and consequently it can and should consume all the resources as well. The advocates of this often forget that today’s cash cow once was an early stage innovation that was kept alive despite the fact that revenue was highly limited, if not non-existent.

One model that I frequently present in these contexts is the McKinsey three horizons model. At one of my earlier employers, we used this model successfully and it helped the conversations around resourcing and prioritizations. The three horizons model organizes the businesses that a company is involved in, as the name suggests, in three horizons. Horizon 1 concerns all the existing, revenue driving offerings that typically are mature, experience limited growth but that generate the vast majority of revenue for the company. Horizon 2 businesses are smaller, fast growing and are hopefully future horizon 1 businesses if we can feed the growth long enough. Horizon 3 businesses are new innovative ideas that are being evaluated to determine if these have the potential to become viable growth businesses for the company.

Each of these horizons has and should have different metrics for resource allocation and evaluation. In one of the companies that I worked for, horizon 1 received, in total, 70% of all resources in the company. These resources were divided over the various businesses that we had using their relative revenue as a metric. Interestingly, every year these resources were adjusted based on their growth percentage minus 10%. This meant that if your business was growing 5% the last year, your resources would be reduced with 5%. This often lead to significant complaints from the leadership for that business, but the line of reasoning is that if you have a business that is growing at the rate of GDP and consequently is flat, you need to focus on driving efficiency. Once a horizon 1 business reaches end of life and revenue starts to decline, the company needs to decide whether to spin out or sell the business, sunset it or to milk it as long as possible with minimal investment to squeeze all the revenue out of it before it disappears altogether

The second horizon received, in the case that I personally worked with, 20% of resources. Horizon 2 businesses are proven businesses that represent significant potential and that, typically, require outsized investment to capitalize on that potential. Hence, these businesses would receive resources beyond their growth percentage in order to accelerate growth, i.e. growth percentage + 10–20%. This means that if your business is growing at 30 or 40% per year, your available resources could easily increase with 50% per year. The key metric in horizon 2 is to drive and accelerate growth as much as possible and businesses that fail to drive growth and that are too small to become viable horizon 1 businesses are spun out or shut down.

Horizon 3 is a very different beast from the first two horizons as it is the birthplace of new innovations. Here the metric is not revenue or revenue growth, but rather the number of new ideas validated with customers. The third horizon receives the remaining 10% of resources, but the definition of what falls in horizon 3 versus the other horizons is often a source of debate. For instance, horizon 1 businesses investing in sustaining innovations for their offerings often considered this horizon 3, but that is not correct. Horizon 1 and 2 businesses need to fund their sustaining innovations out of their own budget and horizon 3 is concerned with uncovering unmet customer needs that offer the potential of completely new businesses. In subsequent posts, we dive into the mechanisms that we use for accomplishing this, but expect to see concepts such as design thinking and lean startup principles as well as a focus on customer interaction.

Concluding, many companies struggle with resource allocation because the main revenue driving businesses of the company have a tendency to consume all available resources over time. This is normal human behavior as there always is a crisis to address that requires additional help and we always seek to reduce risk by throwing more people at the problem. The role of senior leadership is to provide a counterweight and to ensure resource allocation that supports ambidexterity for the company, i.e. creating a future while ensuring the present. The three horizons model is a simple, easy to understand model that provides principles and guidance to ensure that sufficient resources are available to drive smaller, high potential businesses and to drive innovation to create new ones. In the end, even if most of us are concerned with the priorities of the present, the future is where we spend the rest of our lives.

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Academic, angel investor, board member and advisor working on the boundary of business and (software) technology