Beth Comstock wrote Imagine It Forward for one pressing reason. “We need more people in our organizations who are leading with imagination,” she says.
It’s a call to action any creative can agree with. As the machine mind squeezes imagination out of our organizations, we’ve all got to partake in a creative revolution. “The future depends on it,” says Comstock.
Imagine It Forward is about more than navigating organizational change. Comstock shares her personal career story, as she rises from leading NBC’s corporate communications department to becoming GE’s Chief Marketing Officer, then, ultimately, GE’s Vice Chair. One theme throughout is Comstock’s “job crafting”—taking on new responsibilities in current roles that paved the way for her to take on the next role. “I’ve done it in almost every job I’ve had because I am curious,” she says. “My best example is when I went into marketing at GE.”
At GE then, marketing was seen as what you do at the end of a product cycle. “A group of us thought marketing is also what you do at the beginning,” says Comstock. “It’s about living in the market. And from there, marketing became my entrée into the world of innovation, of understanding the revenue model, and it opened up a whole new world.” The experience led to a redefinition of “marketing” for Comstock. It became as much about the insight function, as the stories told at the end.
In this interview, Comstock discusses how we can use our imagination to redefine our roles, how we can scale new ideas across organizations, and why the future will be drafted by creators.
Q. Can you share some insight into the title Imagine It Forward. What do those words mean and how do they frame your story?
A. I feel some of what’s missing is imagination in the workplace, visibility to think ahead to new futures, and then make it happen. It’s that simple. After having spent several decades working across multiple industries this was my mission to help unlock imagination. I am trying to refine it to be creative problem solving, the ability to think ahead. To me, that’s a rallying cry, certainly from my time in business.
Q. What have you learned about injecting creativity into companies?
A. In the book, I call out the “imagination gap,” which is where possibility and options for the future get stuck or go to die. We want certainty in our organization. We actually believe that, in many cases, we can eradicate risk. And it’s actually the opposite. As somebody who spent my whole career trying to unlock imagination and think about creativity at work, I think we have to recognize that we’re not encouraging it, so we need to find people who are good at that and make room for that. It’s about a shift in mindset.
In the technical companies where I tended to work, people were very creative. But I think they called it something else. Or they did it in their spare time. They went home and created things, but when they came to work, they thought they had to know all the answers.
So how do you do it? You have to say, “This is priority here.” You have to give people the freedom. And foremost it’s the issue of building trust and allowing people to try things because with more creative endeavors, with a lot of experimentation, not everything works. People have to have space to not get it right as well.
Q. You have a great quote in the book when you talk about joining GE: “I would need to make myself into someone who belonged, yet was able to be independent enough to rebel without getting fired.” That quote made me laugh because it’s so true. How can we as individuals bring our creative ways to companies not necessarily known for being creative?
A. Start small. Go to a small group of people and test things and see how they go within the scope of what you’ve been given as your job. I love the idea of what I call job crafting, this ability to push the limits of what’s in your scope of responsibility. I would start with saying, “Okay, what’s in my scope of responsibility? What are opportunities I see I want to go after? And is there a way I can get there?” And take small steps forward to do it.
Let’s say you’re someone who loves trends for the future, but you feel like nobody listens to you, or that’s not your job. Well, it can be your job to get out and see what’s happening and share it with the people in your team. Maybe you start doing a newsletter just for your team, saying, “Here are five new things I’ve seen this month and what it means to us.” Those are the kind of things people can do.
Q. Let’s say you get some traction with these smaller steps. How do you take new ideas and start to scale them across a department or organization?
A. One, you have to build confidence in the idea yourself. You’re not predicting the future, but you’re seeing where trends are taking you, and you start to say, “How might this work for us?”
The next thing you have to do is have to have a good story. You have to be able to tell a story.
And you have to work with other people and ask them to join the idea. At this stage, it can become about my idea versus their idea, and that’s often where things fall down in companies because it gets to be a bit of either turf war, function war, or ego war. You’re basically trying to build a movement. You’re looking for people to come together and say, “Can we join together and work to make this happen?” That builds momentum, and momentum often gets overlooked. Instead, people go to their boss and say, “Can I have permission to do this?” Usually, the idea is not well-formed in that early stage, the boss doesn’t know what you’re talking about, and you don’t know how much money to ask for.
I advocate to build that momentum so that when you do come in, you’ve got the idea, conducted a few tests, and you have a group of people who are willing to back it. It’s much easier to get something like that green-lit than being a lone ranger in the middle of nowhere.
Q. An idea that came up in the book that relates to creativity is: How do you measure long-term vision against short-term expectations in companies?
A. One of my biggest learnings in my career is that often in companies we hold the long-term and the short-term to the same metrics. Don’t do that. That’s a recipe for failure. It’s why a lot of long-term things die because they’re held to the wrong metrics at the wrong stage. So you need two tracks of business, even three.
I like the models of business school. I didn’t go to business school, but I picked this up along the way, kind of 70-20-10. Seventy percent of your time, money, and resources go to the now. Twenty percent go to the next three to five years, or whatever the range is in your company. And then 10% go to the new that take longer time, often a decade.
When you’re in the next and the new phase, you can’t predict much, you’re just in a series of testing, learning, building confidence, and deploying your money, so your metrics need to be around questions at each stage of development.
Q. We’re living in a time where work is becoming automated and human decisions are being made through AI, leading to certain career concerns. How can creatives thrive in this new age of technology?
A. If you’re a creative, this is your time. Because when you dig into AI, it’s the routine, repeatable tasks that are going to be done by algorithms and computers. What’s left? Creative brains, creative problem solving, thinking ahead, planning different scenarios, experimenting, taking risks. Creativity is the future. It’s our innate humanness.
I’m worried for the people in the world who don’t consider themselves creative. We need to, as creative people, help others unlock their creativity. Do, teach, empower. That’s what’s the future is for creative people.
Q. Do you think we’ll see the widespread rise of new executive roles, like the Chief Creative Officer, the Chief Design Officer, and the Chief Storytelling Officer, to be among the Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operating Officer and other time-tested positions.
A. I’m conflicted on it in the sense that yes, I think we’re going to have more design, storyteller, and creativity officers. But in any kind of change, if you have two types of groups, it creates tension and slows things down. I think the question we need to ask ourselves is: How do we redefine some of these traditional roles? The CFO also focuses on user experience or partners with people who can help them understand a better way forward. There’s a lot of talk about Chief Transformation Officers, which can result in a fight between IT and HR.
Everybody needs to be engaged in that, and I think designers are the ones who are going to help bridge those divides. So I’d be thinking, How do you bridge those worlds, not how do you build more exclusive worlds?