GE CMO: Innovation 'starts with culture'

At Social Media Week, GE, MakerBot and eBay outline the challenges of innovation at large organizations

NEW YORK — Innovation, collaboration and disruption is startup speak that’s been widely adopted into the world of marketing. While it’s trendy to talk about self-disruption in today’s business climate, it’s ultimately a major challenge for large companies to implement.

This makes being an innovator in a large company, "the most dangerous thing you could do," according to Bre Pettis, founder and CEO, Bold Machines & MakerBot Industries.

Speaking on a panel at Social Media Week here Wednesday, Pettis said innovators require "an entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to risk losing your job."

"You are likely to get fired, you could run into problems with the FCC, and people will probably not be happy with you because if you are in a public company you are often really focused on bottom-line growth – and if you are not contributing to that, you are poison in the company," he said.

Beth Comstock, chief marketing officer of General Electric discussed how the 103-year-old company had learned to self-disrupt and innovate. "You don’t get to be multi-decade companies if you don’t appreciate the need for change and to keep reinventing yourself," she said.

"It starts with culture, above all else," she told the audience at the Highline Stages. "We have a culture that is all about being better."

"For companies like ours, there are people who have to think like portfolio managers. Yes, I have to have the core that is repeatable and scalable, but I also have to plan to eat tomorrow and next year and ten years from now, so I have to constantly be planting these seeds.

"But it is not easy. We can talk about it, and have great pilots, but it is very hard."

Comstock discussed how GE meets this challenge through market-based innovation, that doesn’t just rely on a technical breakthrough.

"Some of the bad rap that people who do innovation get is that we are just ideas people, who don’t do anything. … You actually have to just start somewhere, just go," she said.

Also on the panel, Healy Cypher, head of retail innovation at eBay, talked about the e-commerce giant’s "secret" off-campus retail lab. He said to foster innovation in large companies, it is important to "give people the physical space and organizational and mental space to really sit back and think about things."

He also suggested fostering the various micro-cultures that exist within organizations to help them take risks.

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