Take a Risk, Seed Innovation, Make a Mess, Embrace Change, and “Imagine it Forward”

Innovation usually involves tearing something apart to reimagine a product or process, and Beth Comstock, former CMO & Vice Chair of GE and author of “Imagine it Forward,” enabled change as a leader by encouraging people to think ‘outside the jar.’

New ideas often come with risks. Bringing these ideas to life requires new rules and a deep understanding of a company’s customer and their needs, as well as the ability to pivot when the time is right. In Comstock’s various roles at both NBC and GE, pushing for innovative change meant championing unconventional methods and looking at problems from a different vantage point rather than reengineering what was already there. This vision and mindset underpinned her driving force as a thought leader to imagine it forward and seed innovation during her two decades at the company.

On Tuesday, December 11, 2018, Bloomberg Television’s Scarlet Fu discussed change, innovation and risk-taking with Comstock as part of the Cornell Tech @ Bloomberg Speaker Series at Bloomberg’s Global Headquarters in New York City.

Comstock is a self-described changemaker, despite not always making or liking change. She first embraced significant change in her personal life at the beginning of her career. She was married with a young baby, but soon realized that the story she was living wasn’t the story she wanted for herself. “Story is a very important theme for me,” said Comstock. “I had to take action. I had to choose a different path. I chose to get a divorce and to move forward. I had to pursue work and a career, because I was choosing to go forward as a divorced single mother.”

Throughout her career at GE, Comstock never shied away from change and innovation, as she always thought back to those difficult moments – she had persevered through change once before and always felt she could do so again. Her career started in media at NBC, and she was asked by then GE Chairman and CEO Jack Welch to work at GE headquarters in Connecticut to help drive a very public succession plan, where she oversaw the communications that eventually led to Jeff Immelt being named CEO. Immelt named her Chief Marketing Officer, a role in which she was expected to pitch creative ideas and lead change.

Her reputation as a bit of a maverick, air of accountability, work ethic, for taking on responsibility before it’s given, and her tenacity to respond to new challenges all helped her encourage innovation in the 126-year-old industrial giant with a reputation for engineering perfection.

Market-Back Innovation

For Comstock, marketing became a way to enable change and innovation by crafting a narrative to get buy-in from customers, management, and employees. The relationship between story and strategy drives business, and seeding innovation is about making a mess, not always having answers and trying to figure out solutions. Short-term pressure within companies to make quarterly numbers exists, but innovation is erratic and things don’t always work out exactly as described in the business plan.

GE had an engineering focus, and many people in the company thought marketing was the story about the end product. “But the opportunities seemed much richer, including what you do at the beginning, to figure out the trends and insights, to literally take the job seriously – it’s about living in the market,” said Comstock. “When you do that and you marry the storytelling at the end with the insights at the beginning, you start to see a whole new path of strategy and the ability to say, you know, market back, not just inside out.”

Strategy is about innovation and ideas, and a story about an idea or concept is what makes people want to follow and invest in an idea. Comstock used this concept as the basis for Imagination Breakthroughs, which encouraged innovation within GE’s different business units by having people look to the market and beyond for new ideas. These projects were expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue over three to five years. Imagination Breakthroughs were a protected class – they couldn’t get cut because of budgets or missed numbers, but only because of a bad idea or data showing it wouldn’t work. Some of the ideas were simple, like re-segmenting markets. While these ideas weren’t particularly imaginative or breakthroughs, they were a way of thinking market-back.

Other ideas looked to solve a problem and innovate from a different vantage point. GE Healthcare was looking at ways of solving a big problem, and they realized that anesthesiologists were in a tough spot – focusing during surgery was difficult because of all of the monitors and other gadgets. “We had the opportunity to redesign the anesthesiologist’s experience, but the anesthesiologist couldn’t tell us what they did,” said Comstock.

The team looked for another profession that dealt with life and death situations and turned to airline pilots because they had to land a plane safely while sitting in a cockpit full of dials and controls. Airline pilots observed anesthesiologists in the operating room and developed a fresh way to think about the anesthesiologists’ work. Out the other end came a totally redesigned anesthesia delivery suite that used the exact same technology, but created a whole new business line for the company.

To make these kinds of changes required the right people, funding and protection. “We seeded these instigators in every business unit called change-making marketers,” said Comstock. This path was difficult because it was not for those who wanted to be the most popular, but was for those who believed in a better way and saw these external trends.

Test and Scale

Quirky was a New York-based innovation company that did public crowdfunding, and GE decided to marry Quirky with GE Appliances. The two companies were so very different – Quirky didn’t make the scaled machines that GE Appliances did. While Quirky eventually went bankrupt, the GE Appliances team started to develop its own method of open source manufacturing and created FirstBuild, a community that changes how products come to market.

“By partnering with a startup, although ultimately that partnership didn’t work, it seeded a whole new way of working through a lot of trial and error and tension, but it helped me appreciate the value of big and small companies working together, of making a lane for that sort of test and learn approach,” said Comstock.

Every organization needs a way to test the new and next, and then to get that to scale when the time is right rather than prematurely scaling spending money before it’s the right time to scale. Small companies can get distracted from their mission and eventually aren’t able to keep up with the pace, which is what happened to Quirky. Throwing money at technology does not help things move along faster. Instead, it creates a different constraint, because then a team has to find revenue even though the product or process hasn’t been validated. Eventually, when the technology doesn’t work, the investment gets written off.

Filling the Imagination Gap

Everyone needs to be much more adaptable and ready for change because management as a control function is dead. The manager’s job is to create a vision and to put a team together that’s able to figure out solutions when there’s a problem. There’s a test and learn mindset that goes along with adaptation, requiring more room for discovery and to see where change is happening in order to avoid being blindsided.

The imagination gap occurs when there’s not enough foresight for unintended consequences and what might happen. But, companies can close this gap by being more open and adaptable, and inviting in outsiders to understand changes and where things are happening. In business today, being prepared for the unknown requires an equal balance between adaptability and creative problem solving, and technical and commercial skills. “We need leaders who can kind of figure it out and think five steps ahead,” said Comstock.

You can watch the entire discussion below: