Article originally published on LinkedIn
For five years, I had the unique pleasure of co-leading GE FastWorks. FastWorks was a growth initiative that leveraged the Growth OS model, developed by Bionic, which borrows tools, systems, and mindsets from both entrepreneurship and venture capital, and adapts them for established organizations. It’s basically an internal innovation engine, and GE FastWorks used it to work on everything from fridges to fuel cells, harnessing quick experimentation to uncover deep insights quickly.
Since leaving GE and joining Bionic as the VP, Org, I’ve had the opportunity to install the Growth OS in many more Fortune 500 companies. These experiences have been exhilarating, but they’ve also been challenging and stressful, and as you may have gleaned from the title, I’m eager to share a few of the lessons I learned. But before I do that, I want to share something I’ve learned about myself as a leader working in the innovation space. So, here goes: I’m human.
My youngest child, Sara, will be leaving for college this Fall, and although I’m unspeakably proud of her, as well as of my other two children, who are now carving their own careers, I know that I’ll miss her so much. As a single parent, I have had to be tough and soft–almost at the same time–let them make mistakes, and be there to pick them up. And, probably most importantly, I’ve had to help them realize that I don’t know all the answers. And that’s ok! The teams and people I work with also see this personal side of me: real, vulnerable, approachable, and on their side. Over the years I’ve learned that if you break down the barriers, people will walk on crushed glass for you. And sometimes all it takes is showing them that you’re human.
What do humility and playing multiple roles have to do with innovation? A surprising amount. Co-leading the Growth OS in a company the size and complexity of GE taught me that applying startup business tactics inside a legacy company means coping with mistakes, triumphs, and so much learning, all of which requires both humanity and humility. Here are the six big lessons I’ve learned:
GROWTH LESSON #1: This work is HARD. Driving innovation is personal, fun, messy, emergent, challenging, and rewarding all at the same time. While you need to have a framework and a process, there’s no plug-and-play option; every project and endeavor must be customized to its unique people, goals, and parameters. It’s absolutely essential to meet people where they’re at. This is all about freedom within a framework. Amplify their talents, and never force them to work in ways that kill their confidence. Anyone considering an experimentation-based, fast-paced, innovation-driven framework for their company should be prepared for messiness, mishaps, and unequal adoption, because this type of work challenges everyone.
GROWTH LESSON #2: Leadership must be ambidextrous. If you want to install a mini-startup inside a mega-company, you must be prepared for a balancing act. You’ll need a small, dedicated, senior-level, cross-functional group to serve as architects of this change, adopted by a much larger group across the organization. You will need to “solve for the quarter” as well as “build for the future”. I will always remember one of the most profound questions that Beth Comstock, GE Vice Chair (and an amazing innovator) used to ask:“What is one thing that you think I don’t want to know?” This is the epitome of a change agent. Don’t come to me with a perfect solution…lets discuss this together. It takes a supreme amount of courage for a leader to know the question but not the answer.
This group will need to lead flexibly, striking a balance between micromanagement and granting permission for a giant free-for-all. Although they’ll have input on high-level decisions, they need to give that input in such a way that the executors of experiments and startup-style work feel guided but not constrained. Why? Because when people feel trusted by their leaders and supervisors, they work harder and smarter.
GROWTH LESSON #3: Disrupt with courage and humility in equal measure. If you’re truly committed to installing an innovation engine like the Growth OS, you need to be willing to challenge long-standing practices, processes, systems, and possibly even people or roles. Ideally, start building your engine with a small team dedicated to experimentation and startup tactics,so that you can get some quick wins, some proof points on the table. When asked the question, “How do you know this will work?” you will have an answer. And that means moving beyond rigid structures and people who can’t (or don’t want to) make the change. Start small, but just start.
On the flip side, don’t underestimate how hard it is to unlearn ingrained behaviors. If people are used to working in a certain way and at a certain pace, they’ll need time to adjust to changes, so honor that learning curve. And if, after a trial run, a certain person or role just doesn’t fit into the innovation ecosystem, be decisive but humble about finding a better fit elsewhere in the company.
GROWTH LESSON #4: Identify and amplify the right behaviors. The best way to ensure lasting, company-wide mindset shifts is to embody change from the top down, bottom up, and middle out, simultaneously. First off, the CEO must be visibly engaged and vested in the Growth OS, modeling startup-style behaviors. Not just talking about them, but actually exhibiting them! All functions, all leaders, and all employees should be applauded for adopting this new working format. In most cases, this means finding new ways to promote continuous dialogue around innovation and startup tactics. And when you see a great example of this success, put it on a pedestal! Share the success story throughout the company, and share it quickly, simply, and in a raw and gritty way. This is not about the perfect story–this is about the learning.
GROWTH LESSON #5: Without a change in mindset, mechanics just don’t matter. Yes, behavior change is key. To drive this innovation engine, you’ll need a framework, new impact-focused metrics, different tools, and revised decision architecture. Integrate new ways of doing things with mindset shifts. Encourage your people to question, pivot, be obsessed with customer needs, avoid bias, and remain humble. Otherwise, this change will never stick. Mindset shifts are hard, but they’re fun. We want to push people so they feel uncomfortable; after all, this is not business as usual. But we don’t want to push so much that they bury their heads in the sand, hoping this will go away.
GROWTH LESSON #6: Make the Growth OS mindset universal. At its core, innovation is about curiosity and humility. Big business can seem awfully curiosity-averse across the board, from hiring, to business development, to sales tactics, and beyond. Let’s change that! If you’re eager to adopt startup mindsets to spark customer-centric offerings, don’t stop there. Make these mindsets apply to everything. Whether it’s in HR or engineering or accounting, let your people get deeply curious. Train them to ask: who is our customer and what do they need? What are we trying to solve for, what is our hypothesis, how can we test it, what can we learn, and how can we act? Or, what did you do, what did you learn, how do you know, and what will you do next? Find ways to apply this mindset irrespective of the work being done. As Kathy Fish, Chief Research, Design, and Innovation Officer at P&G says, “Fall in love with the customer problem.”
Building and running an innovation engine is definitely tough, but it’s also transformative. And there are ways to cope with bumps in the road! Start by devising strategies where adoption of the Growth OS is uneven and recognizing pockets of emerging change across the organization. Amplify, support, and promote those pockets. Not everyone is suited to this work, and that’s completely fine, but the ones who are should be encouraged and empowered. Accept that building and fueling an innovation engine within your firm will take time, improvisation, and recalibration.
I’ve loved doing this work every step of the way, but I had some distinct advantages: I don’t mind uncertainty, I had an amazing business partner in Janice Semper, and I was blessed with incredible leaders in Beth Comstock and Linda Boff. Most people avoid discomfort at all costs, and this change is decidedly uncomfortable! But if we’re willing to embrace uncertainty, be honest about our fears, and learn from our mistakes, we can build incredible things together.
I know. I’ve seen it happen.
Viv Goldstein is the Vice President, Org at Bionic, a collective of entrepreneurs and venture investors that works shoulder-to-shoulder with the Fortune 500 to help them discover and build the future. Prior to Bionic, Viv spent 29 years at GE, most recently as Director, Innovation Acceleration. She was the co-founder and co-leader of FastWorks, a platform that applied entrepreneurial tools, processes, and culture across GE.