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Making the Three Box Framework Personal

By Vijay Govindarajan

The Three Box framework—managing in the present (Box 1), past (Box 2), and future (Box 3)—has been a pivotal tool for organizations that need to understand how to respond to the challenges of the future. One of the many advantages of the framework is that it works equally well on a personal level. Many company and nonprofit leaders have told me over the years they have found it equally valuable in managing their careers. This usefulness may be especially true in the world of professional sports.

Professional athletes, more than most other professionals, truly live in the moment and they often fail to prepare for what comes next. For Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, it is one game at a time, one defensive stop, one fabulous pass, one clutch shot. For tennis legend Roger Federer, it is one major tournament win at a time, one match, one set, one game, one serve, one devastating backspin drop shot just over the net or well-placed passing shot that barely ticks the line.

The moments accumulate quickly. Most top athletes’ careers seldom reach or exceed 20 years. (In especially injurious sports, such as football, they are lucky to reach 10.) And the end often comes as a surprise—the terms of departure controlled by others, the realization of declining skills suppressed to the point of embarrassment. For both Bryant and Federer, the seasons have added up to celebrated careers. But Bryant has been plagued by injury the past couple of seasons; his range as a shooter has declined a bit. In Federer’s case, younger talents like Novak Djokovic have come along to challenge his preeminence, although he still makes it into the late rounds of most of the tournaments he enters.

It takes exceptional discipline for a top-flight professional athlete to anticipate and plan for the end. The daily work of Box 1 (Present) for an athlete—the continuous training and practice, the increasing effort required to stay sharp—is so demanding that it leaves little time to focus on the Box 3 (Future) work of developing a post-career career. That is why it was so unusual for Kobe Bryant to announce that the 2015–16 season would be his last and that there were pursuits other than basketball that had attracted his attention. Perhaps he had learned from the good example of Yankee closer Mariano Rivera, a Hall of Famer who announced the end of his career well ahead of time, at a point when he was healthy and still performing at the top of his game.

Both Bryant and Federer will have many options when their playing days are done. The likelier options will build on their celebrity status, enticing each to stay within the orbit of his respective sport. Like many before them—including Hall of Fame catcher Tim McCarver and tennis great John McEnroe—Bryant and Federer could become broadcast commentators. Or Bryant might decide he’d like to manage a team, and Federer could become a coach and mentor to young up-and-coming players. More interesting would be a less linear future career choice, one that blends the timeless (affiliation with a sport) with the timely (an unexpected new career). For example, Federer might become a sports agent. Together with his longtime agent, Federer already has started a management firm, Team8, that includes his former rival Juan Martín del Potro as a client.[1] Bryant might become an entrepreneur and, like former Lakers star Magic Johnson, lead a syndicate that buys a sports franchise.

The existential question that bedevils most retiring athletes is this: What comes after the glory? That’s easy to ask but hard to answer. Sadly, very few former players manage to find good solutions, facing “retirement” at an age when the careers of professionals in other fields are just entering their prime. To gear down from peak adoration and surging adrenalin is a challenge for any long-tenured pro athlete. But there is reason to think that both Bryant and Federer will make interesting Box 3 choices.


Vijay Govindarajan is the Coxe Distinguished Professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and a Marvin Bower Fellow at Harvard Business School. He is a WSJ and NYT best-selling author, and author of Three Box Solution: A Strategy for Leading Innovation, HBR Press, April 2016. Watch the book trailer. Twitter: @vgovindarajan.

[1] As reported by the New York Times in


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