Remembering CK Prahalad – A Colleague’s Reflection
The untimely death of CK Prahalad on April 16th has given me reason to pause and reflect on just how important this man has been, not only to the world, but to me personally. I first met CK Prahalad in 1985, as a recently-minted Ph.D. just joining the strategy faculty at the University of Michigan Business School. At the time, I had little idea just how influential and life-shaping my connection with CK would become.
CK was paradoxical: He was distant, yet incredibly warm; deadly serious with a well-developed dry sense of humor; he traveled in elite circles, yet he also treated the secretaries, janitors – and young professors – with dignity and respect; he was dedicated to global impact, yet also cared deeply about the school, his colleagues, and his family.
But perhaps most significantly, he was a creative contrarian. He taught me to always look for the unintended consequences of any action – the “toxic side-effects” as he liked to call them. He also taught me to look at things, whenever possible, through the “other end of the telescope.” Indeed, CK’s unique perspective on strategy – including his notions of “core competence” and “strategic intent” – helped to shape my entire professional point of view.
As a young professor at Michigan, I taught the core course in corporate strategy with CK and learned most of what I know about teaching from him. Later, in the late 1980s, when I was struggling to define my professional identity, CK was one of the few faculty colleagues who encouraged me to pursue my personal passion about the connection between business and the environment. In fact, were it not for CK, I never would have made the conscious decision (which I did in 1990) to devote the rest of my professional life to sustainable enterprise. That was the best decision I ever made.
A little more than a decade ago, CK and I collaborated on what would be our only joint work together – the original article making the case for why (and how) the corporate sector might serve the four billion poor at the “bottom” of the economic pyramid (BoP). A quintessential example of “contrarian creativity,” it took us four years before anyone would publish this paper. We developed a working paper in 1998 that went through literally dozens of revisions before being published in 2002 as “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.” That paper became an underground hit before it was ever published and spawned a whole new field – BoP business. For me, this was a life-changing experience. For CK, it was another day at the office.
CK remained true to his nature to the very end. My colleague Ted London and I are working on a new book focused on the future of BoP business and CK was one of the key contributors to the effort. Knowing that he was in a fragile state, we gently inquired as to the status of his chapter for the book. One week prior to his passing he emailed: “You have probably given me up for dead. Yes, I was there… I am in ICU in Scripps for the last 16 days and I am now stable but not recovering fully yet…Good view of the Torrey Pines golf course and ocean from my room. I do not know whether you still want my piece. If you go forward without it, I will understand. But if you change your mind, I need the help of a scribe. Let me know. Warm regards, CK.”
Paradoxical to the end; and that was the final word.