Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

The age of emergent change

Read time:

Beth Comstock

Let's begin with a thought exercise. Think about something that you consider to be a constant in your life. It could be related to your business or your personal life, but it should be something that you almost take for granted because you know it’s always going to be there. Now imagine that you wake up tomorrow morning, grab your device to read the headlines, and this constant has totally vanished from the world. It’s gone. Poof. And without it, there will be something very different about your day today.

What does this little exercise do to you? Does it excite you? Does it instill panic? One thing is certain: this is happening more and more, and the examples span industries. I myself have seen it happen first-hand more than once. When I worked in the media business, everyone believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that television programming had to have a strict schedule.

Today, thanks to Netflix, Hulu and others, you can watch an entire season of your favourite show in a weekend, if you so desire. For many years I also worked in the energy space, and the concept of centralized energy was a constant. We amassed the energy, and it had to be distributed in a certain way; until suddenly — or not so suddenly — it didn’t. This thought exercise is important because it touches on your ability to adapt to change. The fact is, when you think you know what is going to happen next, that is when you are most ripe to be surprised.

Change is no longer linear

As intersections of technology and humanity continue to proliferate, there will be even more opportunities for change — and yes, chaos — to emerge and surprise us. While it sounds impossible, experts tell us that the world is never going to move as slowly as it is right now. We are living in an age of emergent change that is based on principles from science and economics. A strongly emergent system is one in which higher levels of complexity possess genuine causal powers that are absent from the constituent parts. That is, wholes may exhibit properties and principles that cannot be reduced to the cumulative effect of the properties and laws of the components. If it sounds complicated, it is.

The problem is this: we are not prepared to handle emergent change. For generations, we have insisted that our businesses and institutions operate like fine-tuned machines. Our focus on constantly improving our current systems has created an imagination gap — a dark place where possibility and options for the future go to die. The result: everyone wants to already know the answer. They want proof. The problem is, the numbers can only add up in the past; they can’t reflect the future, because it hasn’t happened yet. As people continue to seek certainty and perfection, they become less and less willing to try new things. And organizations aren’t helping: most do not encourage creativity or reward people for problem-solving and taking risks.

Of course, we can’t just get rid of our legacy systems, and as a result we are currently in an in-between space where the old is going away (albeit slowly) and the new is emerging — and we need to spend our energy on both. GE was my training ground for developing this mindset. My team and I created the Ecomagination program, and through it, we were able to imagine a clean-tech revolution that was just starting to come together at the periphery.

It all began when we realized we were hearing the same message over and over from a number of customers in different industries — not just energy, but rail, aviation and others. They were all having to face new environmental regulations in some parts of the world, and said to us, we are going to go broke because we don’t know how to solve this problem. Help us! We took their concerns to heart and started working on solutions.

Of course, not every customer thought this was a good idea. Many of them fought it. They would say, hey, don’t get ahead of us! There was also a lot of resistance internally, with people asking, why are you doing this? But, as we progressed into the discovery phase, we started to realize that not only did we have the capability and the capacity to make clean tech happen — the outside world was also moving in this direction. We said to ourselves, you know what? We can do this.

We launched an effort that would see us invest billions of dollars in new tech to sell our products differently. We said to the world, we are going to hold ourselves accountable, and we want you to hold us to a standard that makes our technology both economically and ecologically sound. To achieve this, we had to open ourselves up to partnerships and to external advice. And, in the process, we grew our brand value by 35 per cent over the course of a five-year period. Over a decade, we unlocked $30 billion of new revenue on an annual basis. We created a mission that employees could rally around. Even our naysaying customers started to say, you were right. This is the way things are moving.

Three pillars of embracing change

Based on my experience, three things are critical to achieving the positive change that I witnessed at GE.

1) Give yourself permission to imagine

As my story indicates, positive change — in your business or personal life — only happens when you give yourself permission to imagine a better future for yourself, your customers, your company — even the world. You will always encounter two kinds of people in your quest for change: goalkeepers and gatekeepers. Goalkeepers help you accomplish your goals, while gatekeepers try to keep you from reaching them. We’ve all worked with these people. Gatekeepers are guardians of the status quo. They reflectively say No to anything new or imaginative. The truth is, these people often feel threatened by imaginative thinking. Fear is something we don’t talk about enough at work, but it brings up a lot of very bad behaviour.

With Ecomagination, we faced many gatekeepers. People were afraid that we were going to embarrass ourselves. I heard from so many customers and salespeople, We’re going to lose customers if you get too far ahead of them. Customers can be used as a powerful excuse for not doing something in a company. But the fact is, most of them want you to keep up with the pace of change — and help them keep pace.

One key principle that I learned early in my career is this: No means not yet. Having worked for way too many gatekeepers, I arrived at a work around. Whenever someone said, No, I would shift my mindset and say to myself, Ah, this is an invitation. With Ecomagination, it took us almost a year to map out the best approach. I can’t tell you how many times people called me and my colleagues idiots or worse, because they didn’t want any of this to happen.

Earlier in my career, at NBC, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea to launch what we called The NBC Experience Store. I went to see my boss, Bob Wright, who was then the head of NBC, and the first time he said No. The second time, he said No again. But the third time, he said Yes. He told me later, You made it so darn hard to say No — and I really tried. That taught me a very important lesson. It occurred to me that Bob was testing me to see how resilient and passionate I was about the idea. Frankly, in the early days, my idea wasn’t as good as it was the third time around, and that set us on our course. The point is, we all have to learn to be resilient. As a manger, you should always be testing people to make sure they have the passion and ability to go the distance.

2) Embrace discovery

This is my favourite pillar. To me, it represents the joy of living, and in particular, the joy of working. Discovery is about making the world your classroom. If you follow your curiosity, it will take you almost anywhere where change is happening and where the future is revealing itself.

When I was a marketer, I took my job incredibly seriously. To me, marketing was about living in the market, and when you live in the market, you see trends and patterns start to emerge. You have to get out there and challenge yourself to go where things are new and are actually in conflict with what you think is happening. They challenge your point of view.

Here is another thought exercise: Think back about 10 years to things that were just emerging that are now kind of mainstream. What do you come up with? Here are a couple to get you started. Craft Beer was not a thing 10 years ago. I was with a brewing company recently and they were completely flummoxed as to how they missed out on it. It was as if all these little brewers just emerged one day. But of course, they were out there. There were patterns to be seen. Other examples include organic farming and tattoos.

Yet another exercise is focusing on threes. This is not a scientific approach, but I swear by it: When you’re out in the world, the first time you see something interesting, make note of it. The second time you see it, ask yourself, Is this a coincidence? Why am I seeing this twice? The third time, declare to yourself, this is a trend. What can I learn from it? How can I translate it into my work? When change is part of your job, discovery has to become part of what you do. You might say, I don’t have time for any of this; but in today’s environment, you have to make the time. Personally, I swear by the 70/20/10 rule: 70 per cent of the time, resources and people should be focused on the now, the core part of your business; 20 per cent should be focused on what’s next — the next three to five years, depending on your business; and 10 per cent should be spent thinking about and imagining the truly new and different.

My guess is that at least 10 per cent of your time is currently being spent on things that you already know how to do and questions you know the answers to. In meetings, the next time you ask yourself, why am I here, again?, take control of your schedule and give yourself back 10 per cent of your time. Get out there and see the world. Make room for discovery.

3) Make the change happen

A vision is worthless unless it is acted on. Companies are hiring a lot of chief transformation officers today, and that can be helpful, because it drives momentum and gives someone accountability. But it will not be helpful if all you’ve done is delegated change to someone else and said, You figure it out. We all have to be involved in making change happen. Here are some of the most important tools to embrace:


In an age of emergent change, you will have to continually adapt your story, and that means keeping up with new facts and shifting landscapes. The faster you get feedback, the faster you’ll be able to change. Think about how, in most companies, people receive feedback once a year. That is so outdated. Going forward, we need to be open to live feedback, even if it involves criticism. The fact is, if everyone thinks your idea is great, then maybe you’re asking the wrong people. We have to invite critics to the table — people whose judgment and perspective is very different from our own, who bring a different point of view.

With Ecomagination, we created an advisory board of our biggest critics — people from NGOs who had been doing fundraising campaigns against this type of thing and who wanted to bring our company down. We invited them to help develop our scorecard and tell us how to make things better. We also partnered with innovative start-ups. The idea is to be asked some really tough questions — what I call, agitated inquiry. You need to beat your own ideas up to make sure they’re sturdy enough to stand the test of time. How often do we spend time fighting and arguing over something when we’ve lost sight of what the actual problem is? My favourite thing to say to a stakeholder is, Tell me one thing that I don’t want to hear.


The next part of making change happen involves experimenting: test, learn, repeat, test, learn, repeat. This requires a lot of failing, learning and re-framing. The best thing you can do is test an early idea with a customer. Find customers who are open to this and get their feedback earlier rather than later. And make sure to involve some tough customers. When we did our dreaming sessions with users, we didn’t only pick those who were open to it; we also included people who thought it was a really bad idea.

Next, you’re launching, and starting to prove that you actually have a business model, that you might be able to make a profit doing this. The problem is, many businesses hold their seed-stage ideas to the same metrics as their growth and fully scaled ideas. When you don’t even know if you have any customers yet people will ask, What’s your profit going to be?, That’s why making new things happen takes courage and resilience.

In closing

At the beginning of this article, I asked you to imagine something important to you suddenly disappearing from the world. Well, here’s something to add to my list of examples: management.

Management as we once knew it is obsolete. It is no longer a control function, if it ever was. Today, you have to lead with vision and empower your teams to figure things out. You have to give employees permission — and encourage them to give themselves permission — to imagine. And everyone has to be ready to take action when a new pattern emerges. Just take a few small steps forward and, before you know it, you will be creating momentum and enabling your organization — and yourself — to embrace change.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Rotman Management magazine.

Beth Comstock is the author of Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity and the Power of Change (Penguin Random House, 2018), a director of Nike Inc. and a trustee of the National Geographic Society. She served as vice chair of GE business innovations and CEO of business innovations at General Electric Company until December 31, 2017. Prior to joining GE in 1994, she held a succession of positions at NBC, CBS and Turner Broadcasting.