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Farewell C.K., your brilliance will be missed

Vinay Ganti
19th Apr 2010
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As many of you are already aware, seminal management and strategy guru C.K. Prahlahadpassed away on April 16, 2010 (TC-I wrote about him here). The innovative thinker, professor (Ross Business School at Michigan) and trusted ear of executives throughout the world was one of the trailblazers in viewing the bottom of the pyramid as consumers and using profits to combat poverty.One of our TC-I Changemakers, Mahesh Yagnaraman of First Energy (click here for the interview) has composed his own tribute to our departed colleague. I have included the tribute unedited.

Dear Mahesh
Let me first wish you and your family a very happy 2010. The new video is excellent. It went well in Copenhagen but the mood was so defeatist that we didnt get much of a chance to discuss it.
No worry. There will be other opportunities. I will be in India for a few days. I am in Mumbai on 14th. I am giving the 7th Nani Palkhivala lecture.
I am still not sure exactly my logistics. I will let you know soon
warm regards
C.K.
________________________________________
From: Mahesh Yagnaraman [maheshyagna@firstenergy.in]
Sent: Sunday, January 03, 2010 10:55 AM
To: Prahalad, CK
Subject: Best wishes
CK
Firstly best wishes for a great 2010 to you and family. Would love to have your thoughts on how your Copenhagen speech went and its transcribe and/or link. When will you be in India and we should continue to take forward our conversation in Mumbai last time we met
Best Regards
Mahesh Yagnaraman
That was the last message I had from CK who was always very sparse and sharp on emails. His last conversation with him was also around the same time. The mail shows, his disillusionment with Copenhagen, but also one of his greatest characteristics – Looking forward to opportunities and being an optimist to the core.
CK as we addressed him was more than a Management Guru to me and Mukund Deogaonkar. In several ways he was a father figure to what we have been trying to do last 5 years now. And to so many others who have helped shape what we are still trying to do. From the time we heard the news yesterday and when Mukund and I have been traveling back to Pune, we have been listless and restless bound by the common grief and silenced by the impact. CK knew Mukund a little longer than he knew me and had a special liking to him. We hardly spoke as we came 6 hours in the bus unable to come to grips with the news
Mukund and I met CK last in the Taj Hotel, Mumbai in October 2009 over Lunch. In many ways that conversation will perhaps be very central to what we may have to do with our lives and continue the journey that would not have started without him. CK as usual pushed us, empathized with us, in between had a very genuine warm conversation with the person who was serving our table, and before the lunch was finished, started becoming effusive and I handed my diary for him to write down the thoughts, his diagrams. Like so many things I am trying to hang on to, the writings and scribbles will be the crutches as I still try to come to terms with the fact that CK is no more
This meeting when I think back was most unique. It had CK at his best, at the most vulnerable and perhaps most human. He was still clear why he was ahead of many large corporations who still doesn’t want to think far enough, big enough or wide enough, he hoped the entrepreneurs and many others who might have really taken on what he has been saying may be starting to give answers to market based solutions to billions of people who even today don’t have access to basic services of finance, water, energy, health and education. He also admitted how large companies can take on concepts of his, seem very committed and then throw it away one day with a change of management or leadership or next crisis. He was also most human when he wanted us to continue and deliver for him as much as for us
I have seen CK through the highs of how he made one of the largest companies invest substantially in the idea that he espoused, how he brought together a group of talented managers in the company and synthesized them to create a concept and a commercial possibility around it. He also mentored all of us in the company to keep the pace since he was always concerned that if we didn’t move fast, company may change mind. How right he was! The leadership changed, the business model of the concept was not established and the company no longer wanted to continue the market based solution to give energy access to millions. After that, CK stood behind every effort to keep the venture afloat and when finally Mukund and I decided to do whatever it takes to not let it close, he kept guiding me and giving me strength and new potential partners to try and keep it alive. He also felt bad so many of his contacts said yes to him and didn’t really want to make it work, but he never gave up. When we managed to keep the idea survived through a new alliance, he admired us for the belief and steadfastness. He went further and was willing to invest his time and resources to take it to next levels
CK was perhaps one of the most versatile thinkers of our time. I am not a management expert but can vouch for the sheer diversity of his contributions whether it was core competence or bottom of the pyramid or the new age of innovation. Bottom of the Pyramid was closest to his heart. It brought as much fame and credit to him as criticisms. But no one can take away the fact that now the words – bottom of the pyramid, base of the pyramid are used by 100s of people and the credit for putting it in the consciousness of the world definitely goes to CK. He told me once very simply – I don’t worry if there are 100 faults in it, even if 10% of what I am saying gets done, it will make a difference to 300 million people ! He also had clearly mastered the art of making large corporations as well as powerful leaders to listen to him and take real steps. It is not that his thoughts could not be challenged or that his methods were faultless. Many times I heard people asking his ideas and thoughts were great but how many companies have actually persisted with his thoughts. There were several occasions in my association too when I found it tough to do what he told. However, the greatest quality of the man was that he would never reject a challenge and move on to next ways or ways around to make things happen. His high octane energy, tirelessness and being present fully with you when in a meeting were infectious
Going back to the last meeting with him in Taj Mumbai, six months back, I remember reflecting on how the dynamics and the compulsions of corporations will continue to counter back at implementing bottom of the pyramid work and his thoughts. There was something about sticking to the idea long enough, and supporting it in a way that is patient that is yet to be tried by corporations. However, there are several entrepreneurs and others who are doing what he has preached. This may be directly or through creating avenues and revenue pools around the core who may talk longer to afford and for whom the market takes longer to deliver solutions. Knowingly and perhaps unknowingly, after possibly several failures, some models and answers will be found that will drive Market Inclusion of people who are still not being reached. At one point of time in that meeting, he became serious and told Mukund and I – “I want you to make this work, so that I can have the last laugh on it”. As I sit and replay those words in my mind, those words will perhaps continue to drive Mukund’s and my life in the days to come….

This author actually briefly met him in an airport as both of us were heading back to our respective homes from a conference, and I was struck immediately by his humility. Let us all hope that the ideas he fought so valiantly for will be realized at the scale and impact he had always hoped.

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