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Long-term Survival? The Three Box Solution

Friday, May 6, 2016

My colleague, Vijay Govindarajan, has written a new book: The Three Box Solution. It illuminates the complexities of leadership in a time of rapid and disruptive innovation. The activities that lead to success today will likely not be relevant to the exigencies of tomorrow. And yet today’s leader is responsible for balancing both. While the criterion for today’s success are well known, tomorrow’s success requires experimenting, learning and anticipating possibilities that presently cannot be clearly seen.

Govindarajan invents a simple structure to illuminate this challenge, which is anything but straightforward. He asks leaders to visualize grouping all the activities that manage the present into an imaginary Box 1. The very different activities, where the future is created, are grouped into boxes 2 (abandoning the ideas and attitudes that inhibit growth) and 3. Long-term survival requires allocating the proper resources for both and supporting their very the different aspirations.

When Govindarajan told me his ideas eight years ago he couldn’t have known how relevant they are to the work of a symphony conductor.


Standing in front of an orchestra a conductor feels terribly responsible for the success of the notes that the musicians are about to play. And yet the greatest conductors find a way to transcend the moment. They somehow communicate the meaning of the entire work while still managing the details of the present. You would think that, in order to accomplish this, they’d have to work much harder. But instead, they entrust some of the responsibility for execution to the musicians, thus clearing the space for the conductor to spend energy on conveying a picture of the future, in all of its glorious possibility. This is quite a feat, and very few conductors have the insight, mastery or confidence to even attempt it. But it is possible. And it is revelatory when you see it.

And so to celebrate the publication of The Three Box Solution I’ve created a video. On the right side you’ll see David Oistrakh, the magnificent violin virtuoso.  I never knew that Oistrakh was also a very good conductor who could command respect from even the greatest orchestras.  But on the left side you see the legendary Carlos Kleiber, conducting the very same piece. The two videos are synched up to the audio of Kleiber’s performance. It is astounding to see how effortlessly Kleiber’s leadership transcends what even the greatest conductors can achieve. He shifts from box 1 to box 2 and 3 so seamlessly that sometimes his gestures appear to have uncoupled from what the orchestra is currently doing. But that is because he understands how much an orchestra can manage its own details, and how much it needs a conductor to invent the music’s future.



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