GE's Beth Comstock: A New Blueprint for Innovation

The results of GE's ambitious Innovation Barometer are in. Now, senior VP and chief marketing officer Beth Comstock breaks down the results—polled from 1,000 business leaders in a dozen countries—revealing the three main ways the rules of innovation are changing around the globe.

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Innovation in the 21st century requires a new blueprint. One that topples the top-down approach and engenders collaboration among companies, countries, and communities. To help propel the world back to prosperity—and address the challenges being discussed now at Davos— innovation must yield purpose and profit.

Companies are beginning to take this paradigm shift to heart. The “ GE Innovation Barometer”, a survey of 1,000 business executives in 12 countries, found that companies are moving beyond the old, closed model of innovation in which they competed to churn out “the next big thing.” Three-quarters of executives said the way companies innovate in the 21st century will be totally different than the way they’ve innovated in the past.

Most important, the rules and expectations of innovation are changing globally in three main ways. First, partnership is sacrosanct (86 percent of execs said innovation is about partnership rather than a single organization’s success). At GE, there was a time when we believed we could solve the world’s problems on our own. That’s just not how the world works anymore.

Second, individuals and smaller enterprises can be just as important to the innovative process as the big guys (75 percent said these groups will be as innovative as large companies in the 21st century). So we’re learning to embrace creativity wherever we find it. We’ve tested the waters of crowdsourcing—engaging the masses for new ideas—with our ecomagination Challenge. And we’re tapping the imaginations of individuals, small organizations, and start-ups alike.

Third, to effect change, finding solutions that work at a local level is key (76 percent said innovation must be tailored to local market needs). One way we’re doing this is through our “reverse innovation” model, which innovates and designs products from the ground up— recognizing the differences of individual market needs.

Global perception and expectation of innovation is changing and businesses would be short-sighted not to change with it.

Companies need to re-think innovation in the context of “doing well by doing good.” More than three-quarters of executives said they believe the greatest innovations of the 21st century will be those that address human needs, such as improved health and environmental quality, better energy security and increased access to education. Sure, we all answer to a bottom line. But it’s clear that innovation for profit alone simply won’t cut it today.

Global perception and expectation of innovation is changing and businesses would be short-sighted not to change with it. And that means looking at innovation in both the science lab and the “real world” lab. From the top-down to the masses-up. And from pure profit to profit with a purpose. Companies that embrace this new model for innovation today will be better positioned for growth tomorrow.

Beth Comstock is senior vice president and chief marketing officer at GE.