CHANDLER, Ariz.—Don’t get too comfortable, credit unions.

That was the message from Beth Comstock, former vice chair at GE, who spoke Wednesday during the second day of the 2018 CO-OP THINK Conference here. Any business that gets too comfortable, she said, puts itself at risk.

“The more customers you have, the more accustomed you are and the more vulnerable you are,” she warned. “One of the defining characteristics for all of us in business is to continue to go forward without having the answers. We cannot keep doing things the same way.”

Beth Comstock, former vice chair for GE, speaking during the 2018 CO-OP THINK Conference in Chandler, Ariz.
Beth Comstock, former vice chair for GE, speaking during the 2018 CO-OP THINK Conference in Chandler, Ariz. Photo courtesy of CO-OP Financial Services

According to Comstock, there is an “imagination gap” in business – and it is a place where “possibility goes to die.” Unfortunately for creativity, she said, business people want guarantees.

“I think the imagination gap is getting bigger and bigger,” she declared.

Change seems impossible until it happens, and then it seems inevitable, Comstock continued, noting even after a major disruption, people say, “It was always going to happen like that.”

“It is time to fight for people who have courage,” she said. “Long before the Internet, artificial intelligence and computer algorithms, we demanded organizations and the people in organizations operate like machines – squeezing out imagination. We worried about failure. Studies have found 75 percent of us say we do not feel creatively challenged at work. The imagination gap is crowding out our very humanness.”

The reality is, Comstock insisted, to be successful in today’s business climate companies no longer can fail to imagine, they can no longer fail to fail. She said uncertainty cannot be banished completely, but we can change how we react to it.

“Change starts with you,” she told attendees. “We are continually learning, continually failing. Give yourself permission to try new things and have a figure-it-out mindset.”

Not managing, but creating a team
During her time at GE, Comstock repeatedly heard from employees there who were afraid to try new things. “The machine had them down,” she assessed, so she created permission slips to give to people when she could see they were fearful. As a team leader, Comstock said she learned her job was not to manage, but to create a team of collaborators.

“You want your team to have a similar mindset,” she instructed. “The leader should give a vision of the future and let people figure it out. Leaders have to require their team to tell them things they do not want to hear.”

Feedback is critically important, because feedback is about trust, Comstock continued. She said no matter who you are, you have to make room for discovery. For example, executives have to get out of their office and go to where change happens.

When people pick up their heads, they can see patterns, she advised. Most people believe they are “too busy” to take time to discover, but Comstock said it would help the business overall if at least 10 percent of every employee’s time is reserved for discovering what is new.

“That is my challenge to you today: what are you going to do to find out what’s new?”

Not everyone is going to be comfortable with change, so a leader’s job is to create conditions where people do feel comfortable with idea exploration. To lead change, Comstock said leaders have to be a “fanatic” about culture.

“Learning cultures require leaders ask more questions than they give answers,” she said. “Ask people what problem they are solving. Set up test teams and sales teams. The test teams try things out until they are sure customers will pay for them, then hand them off to the sales team. I called it a living lab. Test, learn, fail. That is how we prepared for the digital transformation at GE. We had to navigate change, and our customers did, too.”

No one likes to fail. But Comstock asserted employees and management have to “share failure” and make it “okay.”

“Talk to each other and share your failures. This builds trust. Failure is not an option, but neither is success. Change is an ongoing job. We are in an age of disruptive, emergent change, so we need courage. Everyone in the organization has to do a little bit. Most people think they are not creative, or their job is not creative, so leaders need to encourage creativity. Encourage people to get out of their day-to-day silos.”

For more coverage from the 2018 THINK Conference, click here.