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Man of vision who changed the rules of the game

"It is the story of the monkeys," he would bellow in his trade-mark voice, a marker pen in his hand, in front of a motley crowd of middle-aged business managers who were invariably, incessantly whining about governmental indifference, corruption and overall sense of "we are okay, the system is not okay".

india Updated: Apr 18, 2010 00:14 IST
Subroto Bagchi

"It is the story of the monkeys," he would bellow in his trade-mark voice, a marker pen in his hand, in front of a motley crowd of middle-aged business managers who were invariably, incessantly whining about governmental indifference, corruption and overall sense of "we are okay, the system is not okay".

Then C K Prahalad would expand the story.

A bunch of monkeys were kept in an enclosed, high-ceiling room. A bunch of bananas was hung from the ceiling. The monkeys immediately climbed one on top of the other and just as they were about to lower the bunch, a jet of cold shower was released on them in a reverse Pavlovian manner.

The shocked monkey-pyramid, symbolic of ambition and effort collapsed. But soon, the monkeys regrouped and attempted again to build a monkey-pyramid and again this time, with the bunch within reach, they received a shock. The jet of cold shower drove the pack to the ground. This time, the monkeys concluded that any effort to overachieve, to strive beyond their limited power, would be rewarded with an adverse result and soon just gave it all up.

Later, long after the cold shower was no longer there, even as the banana was lowered somewhat, they simply ignored it!

The point the global professor of strategy and India's man of vision was making was, that was then, this is now. Just like the cold shower remained a paradigm in the mind of the monkeys, even as business environment after the '90s were changing by the day, leaders were caught in their own past learning of failure.

Only C K could deliver the message equating businessmen with monkey packs. The man delivered his message with brilliant ease to governments, corporate board members and students from Michigan to Madras.

In 1990, when I met him for the first time, with liberalisation in the wings, he was asking every Indian business leader to drop the midget mindset; he went about urging them to aspire for global leadership. But he needed them to act with the urgency of a "burning platform".

To bewildered business folks who had not heard the term before, he would invariably narrate the story of a frog in a pot of water. When a gentle flame was lit below it and the temperature of the water gradually increased, the frog took no notice — it got only comfortable and relaxed some more until the temperature had become so high that the frog was boiled alive.

On the other hand, there was a frog dropped from outside into a pot of boiling water and the moment it hit the water, it simply jumped out to save its life. The message to corporate India was to imbibe the urgency of a burning platform, to jump out of a mindset of comfortable mediocrity.

The rules of the game needed to be changed and the rules according to C K were continuously being changed by someone who was the outsider. That is why in more recent times, the high priest of corporate strategy was looking for transformative leadership at the bottom of the pyramid. He was asking the world to learn from Grameen Bank and Aravind Eye Hospital.

Many business leaders of India of the 1990s got the message; from sectors as far flung as software to auto-components and they elevated themselves to a level of global aspiration and delivered on the promise of their inner potential.

Before closing his book, C K had concluded his most ambitious project: visioning India at 75! He helped create a blueprint for nation-building on behalf of the CII that was recently handed over to the Prime Minister. His dream was to see India as a developed country in the comity of nations.

There is never a good time to lose a great soul. We would all have to learn to live without him physically in our midst. The greatest tribute we can pay the man is to live his deep sense of purpose, his abiding faith in the power
of vision and the need to build a sense of urgency like that of the frog touching the boiling pot.

Subroto Bagchi is Vice Chairman and Gardener at MindTree. He is the author of The Professional.