Beth Comstock bringing lessons in General Electric innovation to Ottawa’s TiECon

Beth Comstock, former vice-chair of General Electric and co-author of Imagine it Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change.

Beth Comstock knows a thing or two about making an impact at big companies.

For three decades, Comstock spent her career effecting change at the highest levels of General Electric and NBC Universal. At the former she led GE Business Innovations to bring new ideas to market; at the latter she was on the front lines of helping the broadcasting giant adapt to the coming digital revolution.

A change at the top of General Electric meant her time as vice-chair of the firm would end last December, but it presented an opportunity to take what she’d learned over the past 30 years and focus it into a book. In Imagine it Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change, she and co-author Tahl Raz tackle how leaders at every level of an organization can best encourage innovation.

Comstock will bring her lessons in change to Ottawa as the keynote speaker at TiECon Canada, slated to be held this year on Nov. 1-2 at the Brookstreet Hotel.

Techopia caught up with Comstock shortly after the book’s release for a preview of her TiECon talk. Over the course of the conversation, she shared her thoughts on encouraging entrepreneurs within an organization, the role of startups in helping bigger firms innovate and how mid-level employees can push back when they hear “no.”

The following transcript has been condensed and edited.

Having led GE Business Innovations and worked to create change within a large organization like that, what would you say are the challenges in making big enterprises more innovative, to make changes when you're steering a big ship like that?

The challenge with established businesses in general, and I would argue, maybe most business today, is we get stuck in short-termism. If you're a public company, you've got investor commitments, quarterly guidance, those kinds of things. Before you know, it, you're just kind of stuck in doing what you think is predictable to make your near-term budget, and we're not fighting enough for the future.

Then it's just human nature. We're afraid. People are afraid. And we don't talk enough about that, that people bring their fears to work. It's why they misbehave and make it so difficult.

"We're afraid. People are afraid. And we don't talk enough about that, that people bring their fears to work. It's why they misbehave and make it so difficult."

We're afraid we lose face, we're afraid we're going to lose budget. So people are afraid they're going to lose their job if they try something new.

One of the themes the book covers is the courage to tackle those fears or stand up to someone who's saying “no.” What do you do when you propose a change and you get that “no”?

I think to me it's a bit of a test. I like this idea, to me, “no” is “not yet.” This sense of, “No? OK, well, why is it no?” In my career, I tended to have a practice of trying to go back at least three times to pitch an idea or push through an idea.

That being said, there are often gatekeepers in our teams, maybe even in your own mind, that come up with all kinds of reasons of why it'll never work. When that happens, I think your best recourse is to try to also get your teammates or get other people in the organization who are part of that future, part of that idea. Sometimes, just by having a lot of people back you, you can change people's minds.

I would say also, at the end of the day, if you work in an organization where they're just not willing to make the change, and you see the new world coming, you may have to make that decision that you're not in the right role.

Look, that's hard. And that doesn't appeal to everybody for various personal and professional reasons. But I do think people need to think about that often. Because you don't want to become cynical.

I highlight in my book, at one point I worked with a group, they called themselves the table of lost dreams. And it was a very cynical place, they sat together at lunch every day. And they kind of struck down anybody. They were funny, because they were cynical, but there was just no hope of ever getting a new idea or anything positive out of that group for the future. And you don't want to infect your organization with that. That's what happens when people feel there's no way forward, they become cynical.

I'm wondering what role startups and the emerging tech out there can can play in making larger companies more innovative.

The problems we're facing in business are very complex and fast-moving; we cannot all do it ourselves. So it takes you to a partner. And I think startups are great partners, because they move fast and they’re maniacally focused on solving a problem simply.

Big companies have scale, access to new markets and customers that startups want. But you have to have a shared vision of what's possible. You have to recognize that each of you has a set of strengths and a set of weaknesses, that you're going to round each other out. Too often, that falls apart because people worry about control.

"Entrepreneurs exist in your company today; set them free."

Part of what I'm hoping to do with the book is that we need to unlock entrepreneurism in established companies. Entrepreneurs exist in your company today; set them free. They don't all need to go to a startup, they can actually make this happen in your company as well, if you know where to find them, nurture them and give them room to grow.

What comes next after after this book? Is it more writing for you? Or you imagining a role somewhere and a company where you can help that company grow?

I’m in that messy stage of not sure exactly what's next. The book has unlocked for me that I like to write. I like storytelling. I think I'll re-enter business in a very different way. I'm in some way starting over again. So stay tuned.

What will you be speaking about at TiECon Canada?

It’s about unlocking that new model of leading forward in the world; it's about being a visionary. It's about creating a vision allowing or giving people the permission to test and learn and kind of create a vision for the future and work through some of the complexity of our day. Those are the things I'll be talking about.

Click here for more information on TiECon Canada registration.