Photograph by Andrew Eccles
Photograph by Andrew Eccles

General Electric Senior Vice President Beth Comstock stopped by Techonomy’s office recently to talk about corporate innovation. Besides overseeing all GE’s sales and marketing activities, she’s responsible for growth and market innovation. She rose through corporate communications to become GE’s CMO, then ran sales and digital for NBC Universal before her current job. When we asked about her light bulb experiences, we didn’t know that shortly after our meeting CEO Jeff Immelt would give her an additional job leading GE’s $3 billion lighting business. We started by asking how someone with a marketing background got so interested in innovation.
Comstock: If my job is to be an advocate for where the market’s going, how can you not be about innovation? It’s not enough just to know about a trend. After a while you get to be…trendy. Why should I care about driverless cars? Well, at GE we’re involved in locomotives and airplanes, so how can autonomous vehicles translate?
Kirkpatrick: Have you had light bulb experiences in this job about innovation in a big company?
Comstock: I work at GE and have a lot of light bulb experiences. A light bulb has gone off for me about the power of partnerships. You can’t do it all your own. You don’t have all the good ideas. What are the biggest factors in markets now? Globalization and technology. You can’t point to any one technology. They’re all interwoven. Is it the Internet or the cloud? Is it mobile?
Kirkpatrick: How do you broaden who contributes to GE innovation?
Comstock: There has to be a humility. That starts internally. The engineers have to recognize technology isn’t everything. Maybe they should work with a marketer to understand customer needs. In the past five years we’ve also been doing more partnerships and investing in startups. The Quirky partnership is a good example. We cobranded a series of connected consumer products. Quirky does things really fast, and gets ideas from everywhere. We wanted to learn about open innovation. How does their community generate ideas? How can we do it faster? We’re launching now at Home Depot a connected light bulb that we got out in a record amount of time thanks to how Quirky worked with our lighting guys.
We’ve teamed with Local Motors, a manufacturing startup that is making cars. It’s an open-source engineering community, but we are excited about their small flexible micro-factories. How can we get smaller factories around the world?
Kirkpatrick: Marketers didn’t get that involved with product development back when products didn’t change as quickly.
Comstock: Traditionally marketing was: “Get the product to the market. Launch it. Advertise it.” Now we’re making sure the market’s ready. We’re data driven and user-experience driven. It’s changed how we think about what a product is. Technology allows us to get customer feedback digitally. You have digital collaboration 24 hours a day. You don’t have to wait three weeks for a focus group.
There’s a huge shift in the imperative for speed. Be nimble. Move it faster to market and faster to your customer. Your competition may be coming from a startup in China. It may be coming from a totally new digital perspective. We launched something—we like to brand everything—called FastWorks. We’re inspired by the concept of lean startups. We create prototypes quickly and ask customers for feedback. It brings everybody to the table, and has allowed us to spend less and to learn earlier.
An example is a new industrial gas turbine we developed. By the old process it would have taken five years to get it to market. That’s just not acceptable. By then the competition will have something better. We were planning to build five use cases for five different segments. But it turned out that what the Navy and marine operators needed was simple and we actually had it. We got a prototype into that market in less than a year.
Kirkpatrick: There’s an entrepreneurial fervor in the world now. Are you envious of what startups can do?
Comstock: We ask ourselves that too. We want to embrace our own entrepreneurial spirit.  We were started by Thomas Edison, the Steve Jobs of his time. But it’s been a while since that happened. What do you envy about a startup? It is that green field, that ability to start from scratch. You have an idea and bring it to fruition. There’s a lot you can do without legacy systems or the transparency that comes as a more established company. But a company like ours has scale. We can show up in a market like China and get something launched quickly; a startup can only dream about doing that.
Kirkpatrick: Do you think about innovating at the scale of the entire company?
Comstock: I love that question. The sum of the parts is what we’re really trying to go to. The Industrial Internet is probably the best example of a core competency across the company. We’re connecting all our big machines to the Internet—the jet engines, the MRI machines, the locomotives—so you can take the data, derive insights, and generate more productivity for customers. If we left it up to each business to figure out their data and software, we would not be taking advantage of the scale of the company.
This article appears in the 2014 Year-End Edition of Techonomy Magazine.