Prasad Kaipa, Organizational Systems

Photograph of Prasad Kaipa

Prasad Kaipa

Organizational Systems Faculty

A renowned global business consultant and the Executive Director of the Center for Leadership, Innovaton, and Change (CLIC) at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, he says that he is traveling not just between two countries, on two different continents, but between wholly different ways of looking at the world.

It’s a perspective that fits in perfectly with the work he does, helping companies and corporate leaders find new ways of addressing old problems. Too often, he says, creativity is hampered by cultural blinders – be they corporate culture, national culture, or even personal psychology.

“All of us are creative, but most of us are not innovative, because we don’t know how,” he says. Coming up with innovative solutions, especially being creative on a budget (the Hindu word for which is “Jugaard”) requires looking deeper.

Prasad’s life is something of a testament to the power of thinking differently with the tools you have: he came to prominence in the business world by studying physics, computers, psychology, and spirituality … and using them to discover the principles and approaches that global businesses have found so useful.

He grew up in a priestly family, and was trained to join them: he learned how to read and interpret sacred scriptures of the Hindu wisdom traditions. But the questions he had about how the world works weren’t being answered, and so he took those scholastic abilities and used them to study physics.

The academic skills he’d gained studying sacred scripture served him in good stead, even in a western scientific tradition, and a dozen years later he was a physics professor and associate director of a research lab at the University of Utah. “I was doing some pretty exciting projects,” he said. But he found that working with the people doing the lab’s research – rather than doing it himself – was the most interesting part of his job: there were things he could do that would empower the team to function as a more effective unit, and things he needed to avoid doing if he didn’t want to kill their innovation. This was interesting.

He began to treat it as an experiment, using the techniques he’d developed as a physicist to see how he could document the improvements in his team and his lab through different approaches to leadership and human interaction.

One of the biggest tools for success that he encountered was the early personal computer, and his research began to focus on computers as communication tools. By the mid 80s he’d left physics behind and was a major computer consultant, and ended up as a research fellow for Apple, “looking at how people learn, how people think, how people communicate – all the things that got me into computers in the first place. It wasn’t about the computers, it was about how people can use them. It always came back down to people.”

“It was,” he admits with a chuckle, “something I had no background in.”

So along with his consulting, Prasad conducted interviews and research, studying 200 extraordinary achievers … Nobel laureates, musicians, spiritual leaders from around the world … to see how they approached problems and found innovative solutions. “I really dug into this question,” he remembers. “How can people learn something new, really new, when just being motivated isn’t enough?”

His scientific background and computer experience served him in good stead in performing and tabulating all this research – but the conclusion was something shocking. Human performance and innovation aren’t computational processes, and definitely don’t follow a flow chart.

“I realized that the approaches of a rational, logical, science is not going to be easy to transfer into human development tools because human thought is not linear and rational: w e explain things with our mind but we do things with our heart, and our emotions drive our behavior a lot more than we usually acknowledge.”

If you want to improve the human capacity to learn, innovate, and work together, you have to think like a human being, not a machine. Attempts to stir the creative spirit also need to stir the human soul. He knew where to look for advice on how to do that. After all, he’d grown up studying sacred scriptures. Wisdom traditions have been inspiring human beings to new heights of creativity for a long time.

“How do you develop people from emerging economies to become global leaders? How do you innovate when you have resource scarcities? How do you change the world around you?” Prasad asks. “These are things that spiritual traditions have a great deal to say about, and the answers might not be rational in a laboratory setting, but they are deeply appealing to the human heart, with proven real world value.”

Since then, in addition to his consulting and his teaching, Prasad has created the Global Wisdom Network, a forum where business and spiritual leaders can document the leadership lesson in their own wisdom traditions.

The work that he does now, for clients like HP, CISCO, Disney, Adobe, and others, draws from this diverse set of interests and cultures to find the elements that work for people, and help them take their organizations to the next level. Intellectually, Prasad says, he’s also found a home at Saybrook.

“I’ve found that Saybrook has the ability to get the students and faculty that I love working with,” he says. “When Saybrook students come in, they are already experienced and engaged with the world. These are people with jobs, with families, they’re doing a lot of things … and yet still they’re motivated to learn something new and bring change to the world and help other people. Working with people like that brings me a lot of joy, and I’ve found that we are truly interested in finding a way to make the students successful. That’s our philosophy, our approach: how to we bring out the best in our students? What we are doing is very relevant to what is going on in the world. We’ve been having great conversations about sustainability, about systems inquiry. And we can go even beyond where we have been, making a very significant contribution.”