Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, and COVID-19

by Ulises Pabon



In 2016, Vijay Govindarajan (known as VG) published a framework for innovation in his book The 3 Box Solution inspired on the three gods of the Hindu faith: Vishnu (the god of preservation), Shiva (the god of destruction), and Brahma (the god of creation).


Don’t be misled by the metaphor. VG presents a solid thesis backed with examples from leading companies around the world. The framework entails three concurrent innovation agendas: Manage the Present, Create the Future, Forget the Past.


We’ve found this framework invaluable in helping business owners and managers understand what reinventing their company entails. We’ve incorporated it into strategic discussions and business model innovation exercises. When paired with an interactive planning process and a clear understanding of the organization's current and future distinctive capabilities, the framework becomes a solid foundation upon which business leaders can create the future.


Enter COVID-19. As we’ve helped our clients battle the present challenges of the pandemic and prepare for the future, we’ve reached out to VG’s trilogy to frame our recommendations.


Here’s a peek into our practice.

Manage the Present

COVID-19 changed the rules of the game in an instant. Manging the present has required formulating and implementing actions in four dimensions:

  • Employees: their protection, their well being, their engagement

  • Clients: maintaining intimacy, assuring their safety, responding to emerging needs

  • Operations: designing for the new requirements, assuring you can deliver

  • Finance: protecting the company's robustness

Our process engineers and industrial psychologists have been working with business leaders to address these challenges. From assessing and redesigning operations using visual workplace principles to helping managers and supervisors work with the concerns and anxieties of their workforce - those active in the front line, those active working from home, and those waiting in the sidelines to be activated.

Create the Future

To quote Yogi Berra, "It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future." We've used two tools to help managers develop an interpretation of the future amidst the uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding how COVID-19 will unfold: scenario planning and interactive planning.

Scenario planning is equivalent to the flight simulators pilots use to train for unexpected events or emergencies. It does not attempt to predict the future. It's a tool to flex your strategic thinking muscles and prepare you to respond to the future, regardless of how it unfolds.


Interactive planning was developed by Russell Ackoff, a pioneer in systems thinking. It suggests an iterative approach to achieving an organization's vision. Deliberate strategies combine with emerging strategies to close the gap between the present and the desired future. As uncertainties turn into certainties, leaders use their new knowledge to adjust their strategic roadmap.


Forget the Past

This is, for sure, the most challenging agenda of the trilogy. Letting go of the past is difficult.


VG uses two metaphors that help contextualize this effort: chains and roots. Chains are ideas, structures, beliefs, processes, and operational or business units that lost relevance. They hold us back and consume resources we need to build the future. Roots, on the other hand, are the foundation of the organization. They include the purpose and the values that prompted creating the organization in the first place. It's the chains you want to forget about; not the roots. In essence, "forget the past" becomes "selectively forget the past".


Previous to COVID-19, getting leaders to selectively forget the past was difficult. The rules of the past and present were clear and the risks of venturing into the unknowns of the future were seen as high. COVID-19 changed that.


Business leaders woke up to the realization that their current business models were inadequate. Suddenly, sticking to the tried and true was riskier than experimenting with the future. They quickly learned about the fallacies they nurtured regarding remote work. They implemented changes in record time. Slowly, the idea that sooner or later things would return to "normal" faded away. Things will return to normal, alright. Only that it will be a different normal; a new normal, as it's been called.


We've found that not all chains yield to the first pull. Some ideas, structures, and business elements are so ingrained in the company's DNA that breaking them is nearly impossible. Usually, the difficulty is not rational. The difficulty is emotional (many times, irrational) or political (meaning organizational politics and power play).


In our thirty years working with all types of organizations, designing and leading complex change processes, our multidisciplinary team has learned to recognize and address these intertwined rational-emotional-political factors. Today, more than ever, we've tapped into this competency to help clients build their future.


Closing comment

In the Hindu faith, as I've learned from VG, myth makers have paired each of the three gods with symbolically relevant wives. Vishnu, the god of preservation, is married to Lakshmi, who is in charge of granting wealth. The marriage conveniently points out the role of the legacy business in providing cash for growth. Shiva, the god of destruction, is married to Parvathi, who symbolizes power. Without power, attempting to break with the past is an exercise in futility. Brahma, the god of creation, is married to Saraswathi, who symbolizes creativity and knowledge. The marriage perfectly endows those that need to create the future with the required tools to do so.


Your business can survive COVID-19. You will need to address these three agendas simultaneously: manage the present, create the future, and forget the past.


Please share your thoughts below. And don't hesitate to reach out if you need help in designing and executing your roadmap for the future.










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