"Don't Let Change Take You By Surprise"

"Don't Let Change Take You By Surprise"

As companies and individuals struggle to cope with a fast-changing, tech-driven economy, the future of businesses, and that of work, seems bleak. But Beth Comstock, former Vice Chair of General Electric, believes in reinvention and remains undaunted in the face of change

Beth Comstock, former Vice Chair of General Electric  Photograph by Rachit Goswami Beth Comstock, former Vice Chair of General Electric Photograph by Rachit Goswami

During Beth Comstock's recent visit to India, she talked to Business Today's Sanghamitra Mandal about her first book Imagine It Forward (penned with Tahl Raz), what it takes to become a change-maker, how organisations can survive uncertain times and future of jobs. Edited excerpts:

You are a top professional, a mom and an author. How do these roles gel?

Beth Comstock: I think one thing leads to the other. You start out thinking about what you are going to do, but things are often very different. That is what I have tried to explain in my book Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change - this notion of opening yourself up to discovery, to what is new and next. I wanted to be a journalist, but I was not very good, and that led me to work in communications, then marketing and business and from there to innovation. Although we are talking of change, the one thing that has stayed consistent is that I am a mother.

You said in your book that there are gatekeepers who put up a barrier to one's growth. Why does it happen?

It is fair to say upfront that most of us do not like change if we are not in control. Most changes are unsettling, but they do happen. But many times, people want the world to stop so that they can deal with change in an orderly way. But we do not have that luxury any more. If you see a better way of doing things, you have to work around people who do not see the same thing you see. I call them gatekeepers.

How do we get around them and become change-makers?

I call myself a change-maker because I have embraced and implemented change in the course of my career. But to do so, you have to give yourself permission to pitch the idea. You have to pitch it persistently because when you first pitch an idea, people do not know what you are talking about. So, it is a test of your belief in that idea. Keep coming back to your idea, invite critics in, ask people for feedback. It is the only way your idea is going to get better.

With the pace of change too fast and fierce, traditional businesses are folding up. Is there a way to survive?

It should happen at three levels. Everyone who works for a business should make it a part of her business practice to understand where the change is happening, be aware of the trends and get insights. Invite experts from the outside who are working on new technology or new business models. Then there is the team. Groups within a team should explore a new concept/technology, and they should do it together because, at times, there is just one person who has seen it. Finally, there are things to be done at the company level. Spend time with your customers. Look at the problems through their eyes. Also, invite people to provoke your point of view. I think businesses are very insular today. We are too busy optimising our processes and efficiency. But we do not take the time to stop and explore and think about what is new and next or recognise patterns.

You insist that strategy requires a lot of imagination. But most companies, when in trouble, opt for a rigorous, analytics-driven exercise. Should they change their mindset?

They must. This happens because we rely so much on data and stop thinking ahead. I am really big on scenario planning and exploring alternatives. If you stick to the regular practice and wait until everything is proven, it may be too late. To build your strategy early, you have to be out in the world, out in the market and see the trends, the patterns. But there is another side to it.

Take, for instance, the payment digitisation in India. That was a big change. But people must understand why it happened. You have to communicate the strategy often. It could be painful and disruptive, and it might not be the change people want. But people need to see that something better will come out of it. You have to take a risk on some of these things. Not all of them are going to work out exactly as you plan. And they get messy. So, strategy is part imagination where you are painting a picture of the better way you are working towards. But you have to allow that mistakes will happen and it is not going to be perfect.

We see huge layoffs due to automation. What should companies do?

I would say people underestimate the time. In the beginning, they worry overmuch as if it is going to happen tomorrow. Then they think it will never happen and end up being surprised. We should note that change is going to be fast, probably faster than anyone can imagine. But it is not happening tomorrow. So, we have time to learn new skills to adapt to new technology. Not everyone is keen, though, and companies need to ask themselves: What do we do with people who do not want to learn? What will happen to them? Companies and society need to ask that. Meanwhile, we must start early and change how we educate our kids.

How to future-proof jobs when machines code?

For every robot that is going to take someone's job, there will still be people who need to repair that robot. There are still things we need to do with our hands. People and the physical world are not going away. In fact, I would say we are going to value human craftsmanship even more. Hopefully, there will be a rise in creative capabilities.