To Grow as a Person, Selectively Forget the Past
For 35 years, I have used the Three Box Solution framework in my work with corporations. This practical approach integrates (Box 1) current business performance with (Box 2) selective forgetting of the past and (Box 3) creating the future. But it’s not only business issues that can be solved with the three box approach — some executives with whom I’ve used the framework tell me that it applies equally well to personal transformation.
As an example of how to think about the framework’s application to an individual’s struggles and challenges, consider the remarkable transformation of a single individual, the late Nelson Mandela, who went from embodying black South Africans’ armed resistance to apartheid to becoming a dominant force for racial reconciliation and national unification. During his 27 years in prison, Mandela thought about and discussed the future with his fellow prisoners. He came to see that the nation’s future could not be built on anger and recrimination — no matter how justified — over the brutalities of the past. Instead, it needed a foundation built on forgiveness and reconciliation. Mandela embraced a new identity, embodying change by becoming a man who, at his 1994 inauguration as South Africa’s president, invited his white prison guards to stand with him.
Had Mandela continued to define himself as an anti-apartheid insurgent—an identity reinforced every day by his jailers—he never could have envisioned, much less accomplished, the personal transformation that helped change an entire country. His personal and philosophical reinvention represents a transformation of the highest imaginable degree of difficulty—from liberation soldier, demonized and tormented by the government, into national healer, able to set aside the wounds of the past. If Mandela could reinvent himself from the miserable circumstances of his long imprisonment, then surely anything is possible. And though most of us will never experience the kind of epic personal transformation that Mandela did, we can learn much from this example.
The way people respond to change defines their destinies. Do they embrace change or do they fight it? Are they imprisoned by the past or can they, like Mandela, free themselves from it? Do they carry the past with them like a sacred lamp or are they able to set it aside in order to create something new?
Manage time’s three boxes of the past, present, and future successfully and you will thrive. Manage them ineptly or not at all and you almost certainly will struggle and fail.
Since developing the Three Box Solution framework, I have not only taught executives how to use it within their companies, I have also applied to my own personal and professional life. Here, for example, are two instances where I used the Three Box Solution framework to make career decisions. In one case, I embraced the opportunity; in the other case, I declined it.
I was approached by General Electric (GE) to take a leave from Dartmouth and become GE’s first professor in residence and chief innovation consultant. The job would give me the chance to apply my decades of research on innovation in a real-world setting. I would be able to test the validity of my framework, make refinements to it, and enhance my value as a professor by subjecting my ideas to the crucible of practice, at the same time helping GE to accelerate its innovation agenda. Without a doubt it would be a Box 3 (Future) move for me, and I said yes without hesitation. I devoted two years to what proved to be a rewarding experience, and I had a hand in creating breakthrough health-care products for use in emerging markets.
In the second instance, a large multinational conglomerate, one similar in many respects to GE, asked me to join as a full-time chief strategy officer, an offer that meant leaving academia. This too was a Box 3 move with, potentially, a large financial reward. The company is one of the most innovative in the world and I was excited to imagine myself leading strategy there. But the sweet spot in Box 3 is the right blend of timely and timeless—something inspired by a new nonlinear shift in the marketplace combined with something of enduring value that defines your core identity. The Box 2 (Past) work of selective forgetting is equally about what to remember. If you make the mistake of leaving behind too much of what defines you, you will not succeed in your Box 3 opportunities. In my case, that core identity is my life as a professor. Where the GE job preserved my identity, this offer required that I leave it behind. As intrigued and tempted as I was, I decided that accepting this job would lead me too far away from the essential truth about myself.
Change doesn’t have to be a onetime, cataclysmic, do-or-die event. One of the teachings of Buddhism is that we become new with each breath we take. Even the smallest increments of time produce change. By balancing the three boxes—considering what to preserve, what to destroy, and what to create—on a daily basis, you are inventing a new future as a steady process over time. Even as the Three Box Solution framework helps organizations innovate and grow, it reveals a set of principles that can help leaders in their personal transformation journey too.
Vijay Govindarajan is the Coxe Distinguished Professor of Management at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. He is a coauthor, with Ravi Ramamurti, of Reverse Innovation in Health Care: How to Make Value-Based Delivery Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).
To Grow as a Person, Selectively Forget the Past
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