Imagine It Forward by Beth Comstock, GE’s former Vice Chair and Head of Marketing and Innovation, is an inspiring read for current and aspiring change-makers. Comstock talks about her career, and how she uses her various roles to disrupt the status quo and create customer-driven change. She talks directly about coming up against old school thinking, slow-moving bureaucracies, and the profit- and numbers-driven measures of success in the corporate world.
This book will clearly resonate with business people, but as someone who works in the non-profit sector, I found a lot of parallels with my own work. I think that bureaucracy and deeply entrenched work cultures are a reality no matter what industry you’re in, and I love Comstock’s approach to putting the customer’s voice first when deciding what innovations to push through.
Some things that resonated with me are:
- Comstock’s admission early in the book that she’s a naturally shy person. As a shy person myself, it helped me to read about how she managed to make herself speak up even when her comfort zone was in the background. More importantly, as the book went on, her shyness no longer seemed as big a barrier, and she was able to go head to head with powerful executives who tried to shut her down.
- The stories about how GE’s engineers and scientists were so focused on innovating for the sake of innovation, but failed to consider what exactly they were innovating for. Their usual question was “What is possible?” when they should have been more concerned with “What do our users need?” Comstock took the completely opposite approach to marketing, and thereby shifted company culture. I love that because it shifts GE from a lab in an ivory tower to one that actually meets real-world needs.
- I was also struck by a story about focusing on small and quick innovations at a time rather than waiting for a large-scale change. Basically, GE engineers were looking to develop an update that’ll take a couple of years to finalize, but when they focused on solving a problem for one particular customer’s needs, they were able to cut down the development time to six months. I love that because we’re often so focused on making a big splash that we neglect to consider all the little steps we can be making along the way.
- And finally, Comstock talks about how there was a lot of push back from GE executives on customer-centred marketing, because they were a business-to-business company. But as Comstock rightly points out, the businesses they deal with are also trying to please their customers, so it makes sense to appeal to the customers directly. It reminds me of a business school project I worked on once where my group made the same mistake the GE executives did, and ended up with a project that would have worked well operationally, but didn’t at all push boundaries. I love how simply shifting your notions of what your company is can totally change your approach to business.
Comstock has a very readable writing style, and helpfully places significant points in large font sidebars that makes them easier to find.
Imagine it Forward is an informative and useful book that will give you ideas for how you can create change in your own workplaces. And if you’ve ever tried to create change or innovate in the past, chances are that you’ll find sections from this book familiar, and will get ideas that you can implement in the future.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.