Why I’m Inspired by CK Prahalad

A long time ago when I was a young consultant at AT&T Bell Labs I remember reading and then advocating the ideas of CK Prahalad, the recently deceased professor, thought leader and management consultant.

He shared some of his interviews before his death in Strategy and Business, on the topic of thought leadership and the source of new ideas.  Not surprisingly, it echoed some of the 2Time Labs discoveries around building competence slowly, via deliberate practice.  He also says:

I was very keen to write. I found writing was the best way to clarify my own thinking. When you talk you can be vague, and the English language can be delightfully vague. When you sit down to write, you see whether you can express your ideas clearly or not. That habit has stayed with me. When I think I have an interesting idea, I try to write it down for myself first.

…it takes time to develop a new idea. If you are a writer, like me, then what you write on any given day may be only a fragment of what you know or what you believe, because you may not be ready to write down everything you have to say. There are breakthroughs, but they happen over a long period of time.

To me, the problems of greatest interest are things that you cannot explain with the current prevailing theory.

In developing all of these ideas, I learned not to start with the methodology, but with the problem. A lot of times, research tends to start with the methodology. I prefer to start with a problem that’s of interest and apply whatever methodology is appropriate.

Every one of my research projects started the same way: recognizing that the established theory did not explain a certain phenomenon. We had to stay constantly focused on weak signals. Each weak signal was a contradictory phenomenon that was not happening across the board. You could very easily say, “Dismiss it, this is an outlier, so we don’t have to worry about it.” But the outliers and weak signals were the places to find a different way to think about the problem.

If you look historically at the strategy literature, starting with Alfred D. Chandler Jr.’s Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the Industrial Enterprise [MIT Press, 1962], the most powerful ideas did not come out of multiple examples. They came out of single-industry studies and single case studies. Big impactful ideas are conceptual breakthroughs, not descriptions of common patterns. You can’t define the “next practice” with lots of examples. Because, by definition, it is not yet happening.

For example, with the “Twenty Hubs and No HQ” article [which described a proposed structure for multinational companies], we didn’t prove the value of this system through examples, because we didn’t have examples. But we laid out a logic about how it might work, connecting the dots, showing a new pattern. I believe that conceptual breakthroughs come when you see a new pattern. And you use stories or companies’ work as examples and illustrations of the concept, not as proof of good practice. In The New Age of Innovation, for instance, I write about Aravind’s remarkable cataract surgery practice, but I use it as an example, not as proof. I never say, “Because of Aravind’s example, we know this should work.” Current practices, however successful they are, may not be robust enough to stand the test of time.

Of course, we all invented our own terms. Indeed, the biggest impediment in the growth and strategy literature is that, unlike in the financial literature, there are no standardized terms. There is no organizing thesis and principle. My bottom of the pyramid becomes someone else’s “base of the pyramid.” What’s the difference? There’s not even agreement about appropriate units of analysis. Is it one person? A team? A division? What is the fundamental building block of HR?

Over the next year, I came to the conclusion that it would be very easy to stay on course and keep mining these ideas and writing more about them — but then I was likely to write a mediocre next book. I think many writers fall into that trap. So in the late 1990s I started looking for the next big idea.

This perfectly encapsulates the reason why I share ideas here at 2Time Labs.  When I worked at AT&T Bell Labs, we published Technical Memorandums and Internal Memorandums in order to disseminate ideas, get feedback and bring some order to jumbles of ideas.  That’s apparently what Prahalad used to do also.

What he says about “weak signals” is quite important to the work we do also.  There’s not a whole lot of evidence for many of the popular theories in time management, but there are certain patterns that can be seen, and they go well beyond today’s cliches.  Time Management 2.0 is made up of such patterns, and there is scant evidence of their truth… at the moment.  Emerging research by experts such as Dezhi Wu is confirming these patterns, but it might be a while before they are accepted as everyday, obvious truth.

I love the warning at the end, and in fact, the article revived an idea I have had for some time that connects the dots between strategic planning and time management.  In our firm, we have been showing our clients how to craft 30 year strategies and it’s something I haven’t written much about since Amie Devero, a former partner of Framework Consulting, made note of the technique in her book, Powered by Principle.

All in all, I was deeply inspired by his example — and his passing was a great loss.