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The Marketplace magazine September-October 2019 issue

As Published in The Marketplace magazine

By Eileen R. Kinch

Imagine It Forward by Beth Comstock (Random House Canada: Bee- Com Media LLC, 2018 416 pp., $30 US)Imagine it Forward

A mixture of memoir, how-to, and inspiration, Imagine It Forward describes Beth Comstock’s journey of becoming vice president of corporate communications and advertising and then head of marketing and innovation at General Electric (GE). Comstock shares personal stories, offers suggestions for cultivating imagination and innovation in a corporate setting, and encourages readers to imagine and to work for change in their lives and careers.

“I’ve been courting change my entire career,” Comstock writes. This began with a personal crisis. Then, as a single parent, Comstock moved to New York City to continue her work in public relations. Later she accepted a position at the GE headquarters. Her first major task was to make sure the financial world was watching as Jack Welch named his successor, Jeff Immelt. Her second major task (and accomplishment) was to produce hopeful advertising for GE in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Change involves risk. Comstock challenged her GE colleagues to look toward the future by developing and investing in clean energy and digital technology before these were accepted realities. Daring to imagine new ideas went against the grain of GE’s corporate culture, which prefers predictable, deliverable results. Many of her colleagues were fearful to try something unproven. To create a culture of innovation, Comstock co-initiated Imagination Breakthroughs, a program that allowed GE companies to propose and test new ideas in a protected setting. Failed ideas would not impact the company’s earnings or an employee’s performance evaluation. Creativity is needed, on all levels, to adapt to changing times.

Innovation, however, must also be managed. As a result of one of the Imagination Breakthroughs, GE built a $100 million factory to produce sodium batteries that could be used to back up generators. Unfortunately, Comstock pointed out, “there was no single market segment big enough to accommodate all those batteries.” GE had only considered developing good technology, not the overall market picture. From this failure, Comstock created GE Ventures and a structure for evaluating projects. GE then began to experiment with small-scale changes, and a growth board would meet every 90 days to review projects. If a project was not working, then it could be discontinued before incurring major loss.

Comstock’s desire to use imagination and innovation (channeling Thomas Edison, GE’s founder) was not welcomed by everyone. In fact, it sometimes created open tension with her colleagues. Comstock’s advice is to embrace tension as part of the creative process, as uncomfortable as it might feel.

Imagine It Forward is rich in advice on how to cultivate and test new ideas in a business setting. The corporate culture of the large companies Comstock describes, however, is brutal. Perhaps something to be learned from her book is that measuring success only in terms of financial gain is also a failure of imagination. Making money to maintain power and status without also working toward the flourishing of relationships and all creation might be an empty enterprise. ◆

Eileen R. Kinch is a freelance writer in Lancaster County, PA.