This post is by Vijay Govindarajan from HBR.org
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For 35 years, I have used the Three Box Solution framework in my work with corporations. This integration of current performance (Box 1) with selective forgetting of the past (Box 2) while creating the future (Box 3) is the foundation of my thinking and teaching about innovation and strategy. Most organizations focus almost completely on keeping their current business healthy (Box 1) rather than discarding no-longer-useful tools and policies (Box 2) or innovating for the future (Box 3). For that reason, I tend to disproportionately emphasize the work of Boxes 2 and 3 when discussing my framework; indeed, I see them as essential for creating future business. And yet the Box 1 performance engine also plays an important role in enabling and supporting Box 3 creation. The New England Patriots provide an excellent example of how to get Box 1 right.
The internal machinery
the National Football League is designed to guard against the possibility of teams like the New England Patriots. The Patriots were freakishly successful from 2000 to 2015, winning their division 12 out of 16 years, going to the Super Bowl six times, and winning four NFL championships.
That level of consistency isn’t supposed to happen. To achieve what it calls “competitive balance,” the NFL puts its thumb on the scale through various mechanisms: the annual draft of college players; a rigidly enforced salary cap, meant to keep rich, successful teams from vastly outspending poorer ones; creative schedule making, so that weaker teams face generally easier opponents; and the work of the Rules Committee, which can convert some of the best teams’ most notable strengths into 15-yard penalties. Over time, weak teams improve and strong ones decline. In theory, supreme triumph and humbling defeat are shared as democratically as possible among the 32 NFL teams.
Occasionally, though, a team like the Patriots thwarts the best efforts of the NFL to impose its redistributionist will. How? As in any successful Box 1 business, the challenge is to be disciplined, skillfully select and manage talent, and know how to exploit all available sources of leverage. The Patriots thrive by exquisitely understanding where and how to seize advantages and by adapting to circumstances that change from week to week — opponents, weather, injuries, etc. Here are some essential practices and attitudes the Patriots rely on season after season to stay near the top of the NFL:
- The Patriots are very good at focusing on what they can control, not on what they can’t. The team’s mantra is “Do your job.” If each player remains intensely focused on doing his job as well as possible, the team will flourish. This is a very common Box 1 principle. As long as coaches and players are well versed in the basics of Box 1 performance, the standard for excellent execution should be understood and achievable. Patriots players and coaches are accountable for doing their jobs. From coach Bill Belichick on down, they do not typically make excuses for poor performance by, for example, blaming weather, injuries, the referees, malfunctioning headsets, or one another.
- Preparation matters. But sometimes, as a game unfolds, opponents present unanticipated challenges. Patriots coaches are very good at making adjustments on the fly, whether at halftime or from one series of plays to the next. This is the football version of linear Box 1 innovation: adaptive problem solving within the frame of the existing business model.
- The Patriots do not get ahead of themselves. The prime directive of Box 1 is to focus single-mindedly on executing the tasks directly in front of you. Do not dwell on the past or look too far into the future. Belichick is relentless about this. After a humiliating loss to the Kansas City Chiefs early in the 2014 season left the Patriots with a 2-2 record, reporters repeatedly asked Belichick to speculate about the team’s future. A dozen or more times he offered this monotone reply to each such question: “We’re on to Cincinnati.” His point? After a bad loss, the only thing to do is turn the page to the next game on the schedule. The Patriots don’t get too high after victories or too low after defeats, which is likely one reason they seldom have losing streaks.
- Forgetting the past (Box 2) often requires a seemingly hard-hearted lack of sentimentality. The Patriots do not allow affection for certain players to get in the way of doing what is best for the team in the long run, which sometimes has led to calculated judgments to release fan-favorite players (e.g., Lawyer Milloy, Vince Wilfork, Wes Welker, and others). Even the way quarterback Drew Bledsoe, Tom Brady’s very gifted predecessor, was relegated to backup status after returning from the serious injury that opened the door to Brady was shocking to many fans. But Belichick believed that sticking with the evolving Brady was in the Patriots’ best interests. The team went on to win their first Super Bowl the following February.
Box 1 excellence demands acquiring, training, and developing the right talent. The Patriots offer several useful lessons.
- The better teams are at evaluating talent, the likelier they are to overcome the disadvantage induced by reverse-order draft picks. Coach Belichick believes the best draft values are found after the over-hyped first round. In this context, value is measured as talent versus the cost of acquiring it. Belichick sees the second and thirds rounds as rich in affordable top talent.
- The Patriots find players other teams overlook. Wide receiver Julian Edelman is a good example. He played quarterback for Kent State University but was considered too small (at 5’ 10”) to play quarterback in the NFL. Still, he is an exceptional all-around athlete, and he was still available in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL draft. The Patriots saw him as both versatile and a bargain. In seven seasons with the team, he has become a top-rated pass catcher, led the league in punt return yardage, and filled in as a defensive back when the Patriots were shorthanded in 2013. He even threw a touchdown pass off a lateral from Brady (a legendary sixth-round bargain) in the team’s January 2015 playoff win over the Baltimore Ravens.
- Once players make the team, many are cross-trained to learn multiple positions, such as Edelman learning to play defensive back, further helping the Patriots’ “next man up” philosophy of shrugging off injuries to key players. It is a way of expanding the team’s positional depth chart. Players understand they can be called at any moment to step in and perform with little or no drop-off in quality.
Success in Box 1 requires leveraging resources to maximize results. Professional football is a relatively small industry where the rules are well known, clearly understood, and rigidly enforced, at least in theory. Finding leverage in such an environment often means pushing hard at the margins, improvising better than other teams, and maximizing flexibility and versatility. The Patriots excel in all these areas. Much of this superiority is owed to the encyclopedic knowledge of the coaching staff and especially Bill Belichick.
In business, it’s important to balance all three boxes. In fact, it is the central challenge for companies that need to innovate and grow while keeping their core business healthy. For a great example of Box 1 excellence, we can learn a lot by watching the Patriots play.