Is Innovation a Dirty Word at GE?

Is Innovation a Dirty Word at GE?
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When I think of General Electric (GE), I immediately think of its founder, Thomas Edison, and the light bulb. Both the inventor and the invention embody imagination, innovation, and progress.

Today, 125 years after Edison founded GE, the “digital industrial company” is a global leader in technological change, making significant advancements in areas like robotics, AI, and renewable energy.

Despite employing more than 330,000 people worldwide, GE operates in small, agile, entrepreneurial divisions – like dozens of smaller startups inside a larger organization. There is one group within the organization that is on a mission to help them all: GENIUSLINK.

GENIUSLINK is tasked with finding the problems, and then finding the right methodology using crowd-powered solutions to solve those problems as quickly and as efficiently as possible, according to Ann Marie Dumais, Open Innovation Leader for Global Strategy of GENIUSLINK. I recently spoke with her for an episode of the Outside In podcast.

To do that, Ann Marie explains, the team sources experts from both inside and outside the company. Projects move fast – usually completed in just three to four weeks – and are inspired by quarterly blueprints laid out by GE.

“You have to question the assumptions,” Ann Marie says of the problems her team helps to solve. “Sometimes [people] assume they know what the root cause is. But when you peel it back a little bit you realize, Well, actually, it might not be that the material is shiny. It might be that the camera we’re using is causing a reflection. By pushing a little bit and really getting at root causes – and sometimes even breaking those root causes down – we can start to ferret out the angles to go after the problem.”

What is striking is that Ann Marie thinks innovation is “a dirty word.” She instead prefers the term problem state. And solving any problem state starts with the customer. Training employees to put the customer first “is not like teaching someone how to code. It’s about training you to question the way you think, [find] a different way to look at things, and question your own beliefs and why you think something should be built the way it [is].”

Ann Marie gives an example of one group at GE who needed help solving an energy-related problem. Within days, the GENIUSLINK team crowd-powered in a team of external power scientists. “We came in, and within three weeks we were able to produce solutions for them – ideas that could be used immediately to start servicing our customers,” she says of the project.

“Too often in companies, innovation is held to the few – R&D or the innovation group,” Ann Marie says, but innovation is everyone’s job. It’s also “okay to take a risk, to fail and pivot and iterate.” GENIUSLINK is a natural byproduct of this innovative and collaborative spirit. “We’re democratizing innovation,” she says.

She recounts the story of Foldit, a computer game developed by researchers at the University of Washington. Foldit challenged video game players, not scientists, to figure out how to fold and unfold a key HIV enzyme in order to deliver more targeted HIV treatment. In just 10 business days, “a group of people that we never thought could solve the problem actually solved it,” Ann Marie explains. “That story [shows that] good ideas can come from anywhere.”

Ultimately, Ann Marie doesn’t see herself at the center of the innovation – or problem state – universe at GE, nor does she think anyone should be. “At my core, I don’t believe innovation can be any one person’s sole job. It has to be in the DNA of a company in order to make it work.”

The future looks bright for GENIUSLINK. Ann Marie says plans are in the works to launch an external open innovation program. “Technology has empowered us,” she says of her group’s success, while simultaneously cautioning that “[it’s] not the coin that you put into the vending machine and out pops innovation. You really need it encased in good culture, process, and governance.”

At GE, innovation – if you want to call it that – is collaborative ingenuity. “We question everything and we attack it with the agility of a small company,” Ann Marie says of her group. That is perhaps the true genius of GENIUSLINK.

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