Beth Comstock calls herself "a little bit of the crazy, wacky one" at corporate headquarters. And it's an apt description when you realize she works at General Electric Co. (GE ) Comstock, 44, is charged with transforming GE's culture, famously devoted to process, engineering, and financial controls, to one that's more agile and creative. Chairman and CEO Jeffrey R. Immelt tapped the former communications chief to become GE's first-ever chief marketing officer almost three years ago. The job came with a critical twist: the goal of driving innovation through the company's 300,000-plus ranks.
"Creativity is still a word we're wrestling with," Comstock concedes. "It seems a bit undisciplined, a bit chaotic for a place like GE." More comfortable territory is the term "imaginative problem-solving" -- encouraging people to think "what if?" -- yet always with the aim of driving growth. One of Comstock's first moves was to bring in anthropologists to audit GE's culture. They came back with praise for GE's famous work ethic but noted that employees wanted more "wow" -- more discoveries from the company founded by Thomas Edison.
Comstock has a role whose importance is spreading throughout Big Business -- that of innovation champion. She began by studying best practices at companies such as Procter & Gamble (PG ), FedEx (FDX ), and 3M (MMM ). She brought in a raft of creativity consultants, futurists, and design gurus to lead sessions with different operations. Their names were jolting for GE types: Play, a Richmond (Va.) group that helps execs think differently, and Jump, based in San Mateo, Calif., which researches how people use things. GE is expanding its army of designers to bring businesses closer to customers. And Comstock is staging "dreaming sessions" where Immelt, senior execs, and custom-ers debate future market trends. Comstock concedes some managers view the workshops as a waste of time. "We have a long way to go," she says. But for GE, there's no turning back.
By Diane Brady in New York