Tribute to C.K. Prahalad

Gayatri, Deepa, Murali, Ashvin, my fellow speakers, friends and admirers of the legendary C.K. Prahalad, ladies and gentlemen.

As I stand before you, my mind goes back to the morning of 16 April. I was attending a meeting in Planning Commission in New Delhi.

Suddenly an SMS from Nitin Paranjpe  arrived. It simply said `CK is no more’. I could not believe it then. I cannot believe it today. And I have often said – I cannot believe a world without CK.

CK’s life and work was truly legendary.  As luck would have it, CK’s last paper was to be with me. The paper in Harvard Business Review – `Innovation’s Holy Grail’  has been distributed to you all today.

The last words in his last email to me summed up the spirit of our paper. His e-mail dated 31 March was received by me at 6.51 pm. I would have been pretty early in the morning in USA. And I understand he sent it from the hospital.

The e-mail was about the proposed science magnet navodayas in India to attract more young people to do science in India. It was sent to all the National Innovation Council members, me being one of them.

Let me read it for you.

CK said  `This is smart, It leverages existing infrastructure of talent and assets. It is easy to scale (given teacher shortages and labs). Combine this with regional and national science competitions like Intel in USA, we will have a dynamite in five years. As Mashelkar says let us do `more from less for more’’.

And it was this `more from less for more people’ – and not just for more profit, that was the crux of our HBR paper.

Indeed it is somewhat strange that `More from Less for More’  should have been the last line of his very last message to me!

I and CK had worked together for the past few years. We were together on the Microsoft (India) Advisory Board, Reliance Innovation Council, National Innovation Council, Hindustan Unilever Board, for example.

Whenever CK was around I would be drawn to him like a magnet.  I would always try to sit next to him, as though to capture, by being in his proximity,  the radiant energy of CK’s  unbelievably creative thinking.

I watched CK closely and learnt so much from him.

What are the five things that I have learnt from him?

First, in CK, I saw the spirit of a true innovator. They say innovator is one who does not know it cannot be done.  Innovator is one, who sees what everyone else sees but thinks of what no one else thinks. In a meeting after meeting I have seen CK see what all of us saw and think of what no one amongst us thought!

That’s what made CK special. And that is how his lasting ideas from `core competencies’ to `cocreation’, from `n=1 and R=G’ to `innovation sandbox’, from `fortune at the bottom of the pyramid’ to `balance between aspirations and resources as a driver for creativity, innovation and growth’ came.

The second thing that I learnt from CK was the art of listening. In meetings after meetings, I have seen him sit silently,  listen intensively  and take careful notes. And then whenever he chose to speak, and whatever he said in his own inimitable CK way, those words were so profound, and  those words conveyed so much.

The third thing that I learned from him was the importance of being a humble learner.

The last that I saw CK physically was in Jamnagar, when I chaired the Reliance Innovation Council meeting during 15-16 January. This Council  has members with iconic status . That comprised CK himself. It had Jean Marie Lehn, a Nobel Laureate. It had Robert Grubbs, a Nobel Laureate. It had George Whitesides, a genius from Harvard, the highest cited scientist in the world, besides being a great technopreneuer. And it had Bill Hasseltine, an iconic life scientist, a great technopreneuer and a philanthropist.

We deliberately held the meeting in Jamnagar, which has become the refining capital of the world. We had a fascinating two day meeting.

During this meeting the Council members also saw the Jamnagar Refinery, which is a marvel. It is a live example of what can be achieved, when a great Indian ambition meets the excellence of Indian engineering and breathtaking speed of Indian execution.

When going around the refinery, CK was inquisitive like a child. After the council meeting CK sent me an email. Let me read it out to you.

It said,

`Dear Ramesh,  Just to let you know how much I enjoyed the last two days. I did learn a lot. I am more optimistic about India’s future. Thank you for including me’.

Look at what he said, `I learnt so much. Thank you for including me’. What a great lesson for all of us –  this guru of gurus was such a humber learner!

What is the fourth thing that I learned from CK?

I was strongly influenced by CK’s vision of India@75. He categorically said that India can reach the top only if it builds on first, the economic strength, second, the technological vitality, and the third, the moral leadership.

We all talk about the first two – and invariably not the third – moral leadership.

CK delivered the 7th Nani Palhiwala Lecture in this city before flying out for the Jamnagar meeting. It was titled `From Sampurna Swaraj to Sampurna Azadi – The Unfinished agenda’. CK was very critical about the way India was  losing moral leadership. He was sad to see the way corruption was eating away into our vitals. And he minced no words in saying that.

So I learnt from CK that India cannot be up there with its economic and technological strength – it must endeavour to became a moral power too.

What is the fifth thing that I learnt from CK?

It is about CK’s belief in the power of ideas. In fact he himself was a `superfactory’ of `superlative’ ideas!  Those ideas are shaping our lives today. They are shaping our practices, and as CK would often put it he believed not in following  `best practices’ but  in creating the `next practices’.

CK’s ideas have been seriously discussed in the board rooms around the world, they have penetrated the minds of world’s thought leaders, they have influenced the strategic thinking of corporate leaders, they have stirred the imagination of political leaders. I was happy to read what our Prime Minister said while speaking on 8 July CK’s Memorial service in Delhi. He recalled as to  how the Indian government formed the Skill Development Council after listening to CK’s idea of creating 500 million skilled young Indians to face the challenges of living in this modern competitive world. And that is just one instance of power of CK’s ideas.

Ladies and Gentleman, I cannot thank CK enough for being what he was – and for having done what he did – for enterprises and institutions, and for India and the world, and, finally for me.  I was lucky to watch to this legend in action and learn so much.

Ladies and gentleman, I say this to his dear family Gayatri, Deepa, Murali, Ashwin that together, all of us feel so devastated that CK is no more – that this God’s great gift to India, a leader of world thought leaders is no more amongst us.

But his family and all of us here can take solace in the fact the unique power of CK’s ideas  and his incredible thoughts will live with us for ever. And even more, it  will propel us into action to realize CK’s dream of an incredible India@75, a dream, I wish CK had lived to see come true.

Thank you.