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Confronting the Challenging Box 2 of Innovation

Posted on Thursday, February 06, 2020 by David Bryfman

So, I’ve decided that I want to change – to improve myself. I want to start getting more balance in my life - and to feel better about myself. I know that I really like spinning. Getting on that bike in a spin studio helps me to feel good and to think more clearly for the rest of the day, so I am going to do more of that. I also want to add something different and more mindful to my daily repertoire, so I am going to start writing a daily journal entry. Great - all good so far. But I realize pretty quickly that I’ve just added two more things to my already busy days and now comes the hard part. What am I going to get rid of, to drop from my daily schedule, in order to do these two new things? I can’t work less, I don’t really want to watch less TV, spend less time with my family, even to wake up 30 minutes earlier each day. I realize pretty quickly that if I haven’t dropped anything from my schedule, then adding new things to my lifestyle doesn’t really have much of a chance of happening. So, I go back to my regular routine minus the extra spinning and the journaling. 

This is a pretty classic innovation tale. With all the best intentions, change seldom occurs, or more precisely, enduring change never continues. And according to The Three Box Theory of Innovation articulated by Vijay Govindarajan*, that makes a lot of sense. “Three-Box Approach” to innovation goes something like this:

Box 1: Manage the present. Do you what you do best and double down on those things.

Box 3: Create the future. Dream and create all of the new wonderful things that you really want to do. 


When most people and organizations think about innovating themselves, they're generally pretty good at Box 1. It’s relatively simple to do more and more of what you do really well. To allocate more time and resources to steadily growing your best products. In my case, it was acknowledging that spinning was good for me so I would do more of it. In organizations it’s often a reason to add more resources and more staff to engage more people in the same tried-and-true programs. Maybe tweak a little here or there, but fundamentally this growth strategy is the way many organizations choose to increase their impact. In truth, in and of itself this might not be a true definition of innovation, though it is certainly a mode of scaling one’s operation. But at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. The business is now doing better because you’ve increased impact, making more money or reaching more people. The Jewish community, like most other non-profits, is pretty good at doing this – when resources are made available, growth is likely to occur.

Box 3, creating the future, isn’t as easy, but over time the Jewish community has also become pretty adept at this type of work. Brainstorming new ideas, doing some open space work, having a world café, engaging in a Design Thinking process – and then investing in the very best of these new ideas. Not all of them work, but when it comes to innovation, sometimes you just need to think outside of the box, try something new and just go for it. For me, it was going to be adding the new act of journaling into my life. For others, it might be adding a whole new line of business or putting into action someone’s crazy idea – because we need to shake things up and do everything, we can get this new practice to stick. There’s more risk involved, but the rewards can be great and lead to some really wonderful and really successful innovations. Especially over the last decade, the Jewish world has invested quite a significant number of resources, birthing many new organizations and initiatives within existing organizations, aimed at building a new future.

It's pretty safe to say that over time, Jewish organizations trying to innovate (like most of the rest of the world,) remain relevant and have done pretty well with Boxes 1 and 3.

So where, according to Govindarajan, does innovation often all fall apart?

Box 2: Selectively forget the past. 

Box 2 requires people and organizations to intentionally drop the activities, programs, products and even the people that are holding you back and no longer helping you to achieve your newly emerging goals. According to this theory, without attending to Box 2, no organization can innovate because not letting go of the past will always hold you back from imagining and creating the future. Resources are never unlimited. But even more importantly, unless you drop that which is no longer relevant or central, then innovation isn’t really taking place – it’s sort of like adding more and more until you finally realize that which you think is better. For innovation to be strategic and successful, it requires change to take place. The only real change that can take place is when someone is prepared to drop something from the initial repertoire.

Of course, when outlined like this, a lot of it makes rational sense. But the truth is that Box 2 is fraught with much more nuance and emotion than Boxes 1 and 3. Boxes 1 and 3 excite people and generate much enthusiasm. They encourage people to do more of the great things they’re already doing and also to try new things. It’s no wonder that organizations gravitate to these two boxes. Box 2, on the other hand, involves loss, leaving behind that which has been nostalgically significant or often even more traumatizing, letting go of staff who have been the hallmark of an organization for many years.

If one believes in the adage that “what got us here, won’t get us there,” then Box 2 becomes a critical component of any organization’s strategic plan.

So now that you’ve decided that you and/or your organization need to and want to change, before you go any further ask yourself…

What are you prepared to let go of in order to make change and innovation possible?
By what criteria are you going to determine the parts of your past you are willing to forget and let go of?
How are you going to minimize the loss once those decisions have been made?

According to this powerful theory, only once you’ve confronted these questions are you really capable of bringing about the changes you want to see. 

Are you brave enough to confront this real innovation challenge and attend to the Box 2 in your personal or organizational life?

WGF Alum David Bryfman (Class 17) is the CEO of The Jewish Education Project. He can be reached here

*  Govindarajan, V. (2016), The Three Box Solution: A Strategy for Leading Innovation, Harvard Business Review Press, Cambridge, MA.

Photo by Diana Parkhouse on Unsplash