“The pace of change is never going to be slower than it is today.”
“To be innovative you have to learn to be comfortable with some level of ‘maybe.’”
Words of wisdom from Beth Comstock, former vice chair of GE, in her new book Imagine It Forward - Courage, Creativity and the Power of Change, which is relevant to anyone operating in business but particularly to those leading marketing.
To address a book specifically, I’m departing from my usual reportage, but I consider this book hugely beneficial to anyone having to manage through enterprise-wide change or uncertainty, or inject a new way of thinking into their work. Part historical account, part inspirational, and largely instructional Imagine had me hooked from its initial pages describing how Comstock was brought in to shake up the CIA.
Breaking down the elements, let’s take speed of change. Comstock sums this up best by pointing out that 50 years ago, the average life expectancy of a Fortune 500 firm would have been around 75 years whereas now it’s 15. She quotes futurist Ray Kurzweil’s prediction that “we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years of progress.” And she expertly uses GE as both an example of success and a cautionary tale.
It’s tempting to consider Comstock’s helpful hints and tips as too-neatly packaged tenets and to-do lists, but her learnings are based on years of experience, testing and hard work related to both the business and the internal politics. And although based on experiences in the past, her guiding notes are timeless.
Comstock talks a lot about permission, giving yourself the permission to take ownership and create waves. “People who effect radical change have to exhibit an uncompromising faith in experimentation, a bias for novelty and action, and a sense that disruption is something you cause, not observe.” She uses “the term ‘fog flyer’ to describe … navigating ambiguity,” a trait that is becoming increasingly important for all members of the C-suite.
In fact, a lot of Comstock’s nomenclature should give all top-level executives pause for thought:
- "Lean Startup methodology” – borrowed from Eric Ries and readily adapted by Comstock for GE as “FastWorks.”
- “Job Crafting” – taking “the job that no one else wants” and then “actively shaping [it] to fit needs, values, preferences” and something more meaningful for both the organization and the individual.
- “Incapacitated learning” – a phrase she “borrowed from futurist Edie Weiner” who “describes it as a condition of ‘knowing so much about what we already know that we are the last to see the future for it differently’. It’s like carrying a career’s worth of mental baggage around.”
- “Total addressable problem (TAP)” versus “total addressable market (TAM)”. When you shift a mind-set from TAM to TAP, you’re not looking for 5 percent of the marketplace anymore; you what all of it. That’s why Uber does so well….” She credits entrepreneur David Kidder for “coining a catchy terminology.”
Many of Comstock’s nuggets of wisdom stem from experiences and collaborations in Silicon Valley: “What I learned about Silicon Valley is that its success does not arise from the genius of a few individuals but from a connected collective that integrates technologies, funding, and ideas from across the spectrum. That requires resisting the pull of rigid hierarchical order and capitalizing on the collective, chaotic, self-governing intelligence of groups and networks.”
The storytelling approach that Comstock uses in Imagine It Forward knits everything together in a neat package which makes for an easy and memorable read.
If you have ideas or stories to share that are relevant to CMOs, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published on the Forbes website.
Photo by Mattias Diesel on Unsplash