"People can’t just be told change is coming and be expected to spring into action. They have to work through it."
I quite agree with this quote. It comes from Beth Comstock's book Imagine It Forward that I just finished reading.
Beth Comstock was the Vice Chair of General Electric and throughout her decades-long career she has gathered a ton of experience in marketing, innovation and change for business growth.
The book is classified as a business and leadership book, however, for me it was more of a memoir or the GE story through Beth's eyes and experiences from the last couple of decades in a chronological order, detailing meetings, corporate issues and decision-making challenges.
As impressive and at times difficult Beth's journey has been, I found it hard to identify the practical tips and a clear plan of action to make change happen while reading the book. Maybe that wasn't its purpose but rather to tell a personal autobiography.
Nonetheless, there were some nice nuggets and important learnings that I noted on my kindle. I want to share these with you today. I've structured them based on some of the key topics I picked up: innovation, change and leadership.
Innovation is the result of seeking out tension, not avoiding it. It’s not about reassurance or consensus—it often encourages confrontation.
We designed our institutions and our people to function as machines, a reflection of the machine-driven industrial revolution. We’ve optimized ourselves to maximize standardization, specialization, predictability, productivity, and control. We have tried to take the variability, the improvisation—the human—out of the workplace... My school, like most, was pervaded by the myth that rewards are reserved for those who say “I know,” instead of reveling in “I don’t know” and learning to ask the probing questions.
I learned an essential lesson about business innovation in this exercise: people have to be invested. They have to have “skin in the game.” When they do, mysteriously, better ideas are selected.
But for an idea to become a successful innovation, to generate revenue and renewal, the harder part is the people: How do you mobilize people to open up to change and then adopt it? There’s no smiley-face version of how this goes down. You have to agitate the water. The traditional top-down style of leadership—here’s the answer, now do it—won’t work.
Getting people to adopt a new way of doing things, mobilizing them around a new story, is the hard stuff of innovation. A lot of innovators put their focus on coming up with new ideas, which involves creativity and the ability to ignore constraints. But the harder part, the especially hard, big slog, is inspiring the enthusiastic embrace of change among people who aren’t that interested in changing—i.e., most of us.
Fifty years ago, the life expectancy of a Fortune 500 firm was around seventy-five years; now it’s less than fifteen. And the sobering reality is that the world is never going to be slower in terms of change than it is today.
If you see a better way, you have an obligation to pursue it. That’s the change-maker’s rallying cry.
But to be clear: change starts, first, with you. As an individual, as an employee, as a leader. Coming up with new ideas is rarely the problem. What holds all of us back, really, is fear: the attachment to the old, to What We Know. It’s the paralysis engendered by resistance from our institutions when we invoke change, from our local middle school to our government to the companies we work for—to, often, everyone around us.
The unfortunate truth is, most of us fear losing what we have more than we desire winning something we don’t have. The better we get at doing one thing, the less we want to work on something else. What’s more, we tend to surround ourselves with people who think like we do and reinforce our biases. It takes a lot of work to change your mind-set and continue to keep learning. Business people love to talk about disrupting markets and industries, but we rarely put forth the effort to disrupt ourselves. It’s just too hard.
Change-making creates resistance. It is against the rules. Change is seen as loss. It is scary. But you have to learn not to stop yourself. You have to learn to give yourself permission to imagine a better way, to envision opportunity where others see only risk.
Learning how to withstand disappointment is critical for anyone who hopes to effect change in an organization. Disappointment, delays, obstacles, recalcitrance, and resistance—they are inevitable in fomenting change. It is in how you handle yourself during the constant tussle between the thrill of a new idea and its adoption that the real work lies.
To succeed in creating change, to not be picked off whenever you stick out your neck, you’ve got to act using the other side’s language and values. You’ve got to act from the inside, knowing their arguments better than they do.
People who effect radical change have to exhibit an uncompromising faith in experimentation, a radical impatience with the default, a bias for novelty and action, and a sense that disruption is something you engage, not observe.
Because tomorrow always comes, change-makers can’t be afraid to share their vision and declare their aspirations for it loudly, even before they’ve built it, done it, won it. This is how you grab mindshare. And you need mindshare before you can capture market share. You need to sell a vision, devise a plan, and invite others to help build it. This is how change gets harnessed.
On a very basic level, change is a conversation. The more vibrant, the more diverse, the more animated and sometimes agitated the conversations an organization is having, the more likely you’ll find an adaptive organization that’s gotten good at learning, creation, innovation, and change.
One of the defining characteristics of our new age of rapid-fire change is that leaders, managers, and employees have to be able to move forward without having all the answers.
I’ve realized you can’t worry so much about making the right decision. What is more important is to develop a habit of acting decisively. It’s not that I have less doubt—as with most people, my insecurities run deep—but that I act in spite of it.
Charging into the unknown, optimistically and courageously, with all flags flying, is a skill, one that needs to be developed and nurtured, rather than quashed.
As a vast array of research has shown, success correlates as closely with confidence as it does competence. This is particularly true for someone who intends to be a change agent.
“Optimize today and build tomorrow.” Companies have to learn how to do both if they expect to be around for future generations. Good leaders know it is their job to manage the tension from this hard balancing act.
Such is the path of the emergent leader. This all can’t be done without unrelenting passion and humility. You need the passion to try new things and take great risks, enabling others to do the same. But you also need the humility to realize failure is part of your job and you will be unable to know the answer or predict the outcome. You need, most of all, a kind of faith that amidst all this uncertainty and ambiguity, the next new thing will emerge, eventually.
Have you read Beth's book?