The management trinity


R Gopalakrishnan
Vijay Govindarajan
HBR Press
256 pages; Rs 995

Vijay Govindarajan (VG), the author of this new book, is a celebrated academic, successful author and accomplished expert on his subject. He is numero uno among Indian management thinkers, indeed, among the top in the global league. It is natural that a new book from such a thought leader arouses high expectations.

VG's thesis is that organisations are required to simultaneously undertake three different activities that demand three distinct and separate skill sets: Box 1, which is about continuous improvement of ongoing operations; Box 2, which is about selectively abandoning the past in order to create the space (bandwidth, cash, energy) for renewal; and, finally, Box 3, which is about creating the future through new initiatives and risk-taking.

VG presents the ancient Hindu trilogy of Gods - Vishnu, the Preserver, as Box 1, Shiva, the Destroyer, as Box 2, and Brahma, the Creator, as Box 3 - thereby implicitly acknowledging that his Three Box Solution is a modern presentation of an ancient Indian concept. To demonstrate the continued relevance of the idea of the trinity, he presents the case study of a contemporary, successful company called Mu Sigma, which has, in fact, based its management philosophy on the trilogy of Hindu Gods! Quite clever.

Individuals face a similar challenge with regard to their lives and personal growth; they learn to respond through ambidexterity. How do you get hundreds or thousands of employees in an organisation to show collective ambidexterity, something that I call "coordinated ambidexterity?" VG provides the answer in the form of the Three Box Solution by asserting, "By balancing the activities and behaviours associated with each box, every day, your organisations will be inventing the future as a steady process over time rather than as a one-time cataclysmic, do-or-die event."

The book is quite workmanlike, insofar as it proposes a distinctive framework, contains relevant case studies, summarises chapters, and offers tools. Through the case of Keurig Coffee, VG summarises the six values that Keurig leaders fostered to create breakthrough innovations in Box 3: (i) restlessness and dissatisfaction; (ii) openness to outside ideas and skills; (iii) eagerness for challenges; (iv) experimentation and adaptation; (v) uncommon sense; and (vi) Plan B flexibility. While elucidating the challenges of forgetting the past (Box 2), he cautions against the three traps of complacency, competency and cannibalisation.

Does all this sound like it is rocket science? Not really. But herein lies the pragmatism of the book. After all, is not pragmatism stating simply what seems obvious, but which is too often forgotten? And the field of business management is replete with examples!

As I pored over the pages of this book, I was reminded of my own experiences. How did Unilever in India transform itself from pure fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) maker to include exports and industrial chemicals in its portfolio, and then craft a path back to focused FMCG without ever letting go of its core purpose? How did Tata hold on to basic values while offloading TOMCO, ACC, Forbes Campbell (Box 2), build a great future company like TCS (Box 3) while improving operations of current Tata companies through the Tata Business Excellence Model (Box 1)?

It is not just a question of following the rituals of each box, but of balancing these three boxes. "The key to understanding balance is to recognise the linkage among the three boxes," the author asserts. He goes on to offer the unusual example of how the Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) managed to balance all three boxes, simultaneously improving its present, selectively abandoning its past, and creating its own vibrant future. By citing this unusual case about a church within the pages of a management book, VG lifts the reader's mind into unexplored territories. That is a virtue of the book.

As a former student of a Jesuit School, I am reminded how Catholic Church liturgy used to be unintelligibly in Latin up until 1965. By the time I was well into my professional career, I found church liturgy to be in Tamil, Hindi and other local languages. For the Catholic Church, what a Box 3 idea that was! The Arya Samaj had already done the equivalent for Vedic ceremonies.

Indeed, I must recall what Adi Shankaracharya accomplished in the eighth century. As Buddhism took deep roots and displaced Hinduism, Shankara felt obstructed by the entrenched Mimamsa School, which emphasised strict Hindu ritualism (Box 2). From Kaladi to Dwarka to Badrinath and on to Puri, he walked preaching his Advaita Vedanta (Box 1), while simultaneously engaging in tarka-vitarka everywhere, renewing ideas for Box 3! The charming story of his debate with Mandana Misra, followed by the challenge thrown at him by Mandana's wife, Ubhaya Bharati, is a fabulous example of all the three boxes working in balance - in the interest of space and relevance, I desist from narrating that story in this book review.

The book packages well-known concepts into a modern, management-friendly language for ready use by contemporary management practitioners. It is a good, matter-of-fact book, and no operating manager can complain that the book is not practical.

(The reviewer is an author and corporate advisor)

First Published: Jun 14 2016 | 9:30 PM IST

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