Need to Know

Keep Your Eyes Open

What it really takes to see change coming

By Kate Pavao

Fall 2018

Imagine It Forward Book Cover

Beth Comstock has seen her share of change. Comstock, the first female vice chair of GE, had a 25-year career at the company, where she helped launch the NBC Experience Store, and later Hulu, and then ran marketing and innovation at GE during the 2008 financial crisis. Here, the Imagine It Forward author talks to Profit about what managers need to do to thrive in disruption.

On Disruption:

Many people in business and life assume that things march ahead in a linear way. What we’ve started to see in this hyperconnected, fast-paced, especially digital world, is that many things are emerging all at once, and they’re creating all kinds of new patterns around us.

We’re in this race to be more efficient, more productive. I was. Sometimes we totally miss the things that are going to make us most competitive by not picking up our heads and seeing what’s happening in the world beyond what we’re used to.

On Outside Voices:

If you’ve set up a discovery mechanism for your company where you’re constantly surveying the landscape to see what’s new and next, you start to create almost a heat map of what you need to focus on. That’s when you start to think of the kind of people who can help you understand it.

I’ve brought in a cultural anthropologist, scientists, and even poets and musicians. What you’re trying to do is create metaphors and stories so your people can understand the change that’s happening. You don’t need a big budget for this. You can start just by asking your customers about the questions they are wrestling with.

On Permission Slips:

Part of my job was giving permission to people who were afraid and also to take that permission myself when I was afraid. It’s kind of goofy, but I actually created this stack of permission slips that I kept on my desk, and I would hand one out when someone would say, “I can’t do that.” Often the “can’t” was really, “I’m afraid I can’t do that” or “I don’t know how to do that.” Asking them to fill out the slip helped them take a bit of a risk in trying something new—asking a question in a tough meeting or calling a customer they’ve never met—and going toward a better way.

On Modern Management:

The idea of management is archaic at this point. You don’t control the team you work for. The best you can do is inspire your people with a vision of the future and give them space to figure it out. And that requires really good feedback loops that you can count on so you can adapt and make change faster.



Illustration by Wes Rowell