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Vaguely yours, Beth Comstock

In a business world that’s used to implementing successful formulas, how do we make room for discovery? Beth Comstock, Vice Chair of GE has called on her initial training as a biologist, to explain how company cultures can use the idea of emergent properties to allow new and adaptive patterns of operation to form.

Talking to Richard Aedy on ABC Radio National’s Best Practice program, Comstock, who was in Australia in May for a board meeting of Innovation and Science Australia, urged organisations to respond to the speed and complexity of market change by embracing vagueness—unprescribed paths to company goals.

Ants do it, achieving herculean tasks without a blueprint, but with a goal in mind and constant interaction, feedback and collaboration between individuals.

Where intended strategy is defined as following procedure to an outcome, emergent strategy allows plans to adjust to changing realities, and in accordance with the properties or talents of the participants.

Comstock calls it “mission-based management”, which sets a vision and some ground rules, but allows employees and associated agencies to find new ways to surge towards an aim.

Data, she says is the enabling feedback that organisations can use to flex against the norm. GE’s digital industrial push is harnessing data, for example, to allow the switch to more efficient predictive maintenance rather than routine maintenance of machines such as jet engines.

And a new app that GE has created for Qantas allows pilots to see the fuel consumption of aircraft they fly in relation to the fleet performance, and thereby improve their individual decisions on how to manage each flight. The pilots’ rules of engagement—that put safety first and strive for on-time arrival—don’t change, but the data feedback shows that there’s wriggle room for each pilot to refine their strategies. The benefits are in fuel savings to the airline, but also in fostering pilots’ individual genius and unique problem-solving skills.

How can we allow ourselves to use data earlier, get feedback earlier and adapt what we’re going to do? This Best Practice episode from the ABC, and a Comstock-authored article on NewCo Shift will give you a vague idea. Listen to Beth and Richard below.

 

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