Companies are not immortal, nor should they try to be immortal

Today was the first day of the World innovation Forum, held at the Nokia Theatre here in New York City. There were three keynote speakers, the noted futurist and Stanford professor, Paul Saffo, the bottom-of-the-pyramid innovation proponent, CK Prahalad and Tuck business school professor and GE innovation consultant Vijay Govindarajan, pictured, who wryly noted that he got the bum slot at the end of the day (and who still managed to captivate the audience.)

All three were really strong speakers, who made great arguments for the need for innovation. Refreshingly, these arguments weren’t posed in hideous innovation consultant-speak, but all three had a candid manner that embraced the opacity of the downturn and celebrated the opportunities therein. And all three were adamant about the need for a new type of firm to emerge from the current global economic turmoil. Prahalad, for instance, described “velcro” organizations that can form and reform as necessary, on a project basis. Govindarajan described the pursuit of “next practices” as opposed to “best practices,” pointing out that if everyone subscribes to the same rules of the same game, then no one will reinvent anything. He cited Muhammad Yunus’ work with the Grameen bank as a great example of someone finding out about conventional wisdom (in Yunus’ case about banking), and then doing exactly the opposite, to astonishing effect.

Meanwhile, Paul Saffo described the need to look again at how we even think about companies. “How come we have the expectation that a business should be immortal?” he said to me in a podcast interview we recorded right after he came off stage. “Companies are not immortal, nor should they try to be immortal.” Instead, he proffered, why don’t companies think of their legacy in the same way that humans do: by way of their offspring. In this way, the success of a company would be measured more by the success of its spin-offs than its own longevity. It’s a provocative idea. Let me know what you think.

Photo courtesy Dov Friedmann