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Beth Comstock

For more than a decade I’ve been impressed by Beth Comstock’s ability to discover and champion new visions ahead of the market--but not too far ahead. Relevant business foresight requires not only reading weak signals and various plausible futures, but also determining when to act. The GE team has led awareness and action on many fronts--from Ecomagination to Healthymagination to Digital Twins-- in the ten years since I first met Beth.

Recently, Beth announced her transition from GE after 28 years. A month before her announcement, we sat down for a conversation in New York at brand and experience design firm COLLINS. Our setting was founder Brian Collins’s library, where a showcase of beautiful, eclectic, insightful paraphernalia from design and technology to 50s advertising and fairy tales set the scene—fitting for a conversation about anticipating the future.

To start, we discussed how the business of story making and storytelling complement one another. They often occur separately, but are more impactful together. Some companies are great at creating the future, but fail to share their stories and fail to muster potential allies, internal and external. Others are great at telling stories, but backfire when inauthentic. To be effective and build trust, stories must be compelling and authentic.

As Beth argues, “I think hype cycles are important…. You almost have to be outrageous to get people’s attention.” But it’s not just about attention, it’s attention with purpose. To raise awareness, to build momentum, to focus the right people’s attention on what you believe will matter in the future.

“You need cartoon artists within organizations... willing to take harassment or shame.” If the vision is compelling in terms of potential value creation and not too far out in the future, we find that storytelling leads to story making—then we have more great stories to tell.

To catalyze this virtuous cycle, Beth advised, “People have to discover it for themselves. People experiencing the new, together.” In 2012, Beth’s team sent a couple thousand 3D printers across GE and asked people to experiment. There were people who said “this is a toy and I’m not going to waste my time.” But others were moved to explore. The exploration led, among other things, to changes in how GE prototypes for early customer feedback and helped seed what became GE’s additive manufacturing group.

“At first it is a cartoon, at first it is silly, it can’t possibly be true, or if it’s true it doesn’t apply to us… but eventually some version of this will happen.” Sharing visions of the future increases the likelihood they’ll occur.

During our conversation, I noted our host’s model of the Starship USS Enterprise from the original Star Trek series of the 1960s. It was no coincidence that those stories of interstellar discovery occurred in the decade following the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch, and then President Kennedy’s mission for America to send human beings on moon missions, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Over the course of our conversation we launched into a number of topics, but here is where it landed, at least for me: More than anything else I left with a better sense of how vision begets story, how story generates attention and in some cases shapes reality. Storytelling and story making reinforce each other. To a great extent, we humans construct our own realities.

Beth and I met again for coffee soon after the announcement of her departure from GE. The obvious question was “what next?” Beth’s thoughtful answer was, “I don’t know yet, and I’m not worried about it. I’m going to step back and explore before making any decisions.” She’s meeting a range of people, reading a lot of philosophy and committing time for reflection.

Many people, especially top performers, fear a true hiatus. So much of an individual’s identity is defined by roles and platforms, and being away for too long suggests you’re ‘out of the game.’ Life is short. Being too much in any game can mean you’re dominated by it, not reflecting on the paths you could or should be taking, not taking responsibility for the life you could create.

Even the best of career situations—especially the best— can direct and subsume your attention, obviating other life paths. We all need the discipline to sometimes be what I call “strategically unfocused.” To reflect, envision and create. Joseph Campbell, a pioneer in exploring mythology (aka-- stories) across cultures, advised, “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

Near the end of our interview I asked Beth what, years from now, she most hopes to be remembered for. “That I committed myself to working with meaning, to working with a team of people who could imagine what was next and to work really hard to make it happen.” That’s a story we could all aspire to create.

 

--Rob Wolcott