GE is NOT acting its age — and that's a good thing

How GE, a 125-year-old company, is making progress — by acting like a startup.

hands work as a team managing business and technology gears and symbols to create innovation
Thinkstock

GE is leading the largest digital sales force transformation in the world. And we’re doing it by thinking small. Just like a startup. We are focused every day on thinking, acting and working like a startup. Each morning, we challenge ourselves to wake up with an entrepreneurial spirit and a risk-taking mentality that might seem surprising to some. Why? Well, we’re facing the reality that our customers have changed, and thus, if we want to continue to serve them well, then it’s time for us to change as well.

Here are some of the lessons we learned during the early phases of transforming our global sales force of 25,000 sellers across multiple businesses.

Lesson 1: Failure is an option...

...And in some cases, it’s even a mandate. To take on such an ambitious endeavor, the first thing we had to do was make it okay to fail. Not an easy task, considering we’re dealing with a very talented — but very Type-A — group of employees, none of whom like the idea of failure one bit. But through our FastWorks program, we are all learning to embrace the idea. We are realizing that if we aren’t failing, we’re not learning.

Lesson 2: Even a giant can be quick and nimble

Customers want a B2B experience that matches the experience they enjoy in the consumer world — on-demand and instant. To keep pace, we have to move just as quickly. We realized that we had to think about what we could accomplish in minutes and hours, not days and weeks. So we organized ourselves as a small, mission-based product management team. And by doing so, we were able to test, learn, fail and pivot quickly to find what new sales technologies have potential for scale.

Lesson 3: The most important step is the first one

Nothing kills a good idea quicker than inertia. So how do you get a corporate committee moving? How do you go from talking about — and meeting on — a project to actually doing something about it? Well, we set a very aggressive deadline for the project, with frequent check-ins. The team had no choice but to act. A deadline is a great motivator. To inspire a new way of thinking, I would often describe how when you walk into Facebook’s headquarters you see a giant sign with a saying Mark Zuckerberg coined: “Done is better than perfect.”

Lesson 4: Think "we," not "me"

When you’ve got multiple verticals represented in a horizontal team, people tend to err on the side of protecting their own turf. So from day one, we included leadership from across the company to champion our cause and reinforce the idea among their teams that this initiative is good for all of GE, not just their specific business. Getting everyone on the same page and moving in the same direction with a single shared purpose from the very beginning is critical.

Lesson 5: Remember, it’s not about us

Throughout the journey, we kept our eyes firmly fixed where they belong: on our customers. Yes, we are helping our sales team perform more efficiently than they ever imagined. But we’re doing it so we can provide our customers with an increasingly better, more fluid experience. By transforming the sales experience, we’re empowering our people to transform the customer experience. Put your customers first, and you create results that last.

What I’ve learned in the first phase of our Digital Sales Transformation is that It doesn’t matter how large or small or young or old your organization, thinking like a startup can help you accomplish more faster than you ever thought possible — and this is good for our teams, our customers and our investors.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

NEW! Download the Winter 2018 digital edition of CIO magazine