Ideas are Scary: The important task of being a place that lets them grow

By far my favorite commercial of 2014/2015 is the one below from GE about how ideas can sometimes be scary featuring a little alien looking ET creature being born and ridiculed until GE opened its doors to the innovative prospects of the fledgling creature. It’s a very honest commercial for such a huge corporate giant and it tells me that at least in practice GE hasn’t lost its way in understanding where it came from and what role it plays in America’s future. Growing up in Cincinnati it is impossible to not have GE a major part of my life and whenever I have to travel downtown and drive by the Evendale plant there is a little happy place that keys off in the back of my mind knowing to what a great extent GE has advanced technology and really lived up to the aspects of the commercial on innovation.

Being a corporate giant isn’t easy, and I am often distrustful of them to stay nimble in the field of innovation simply because there comes too much pageantry and fluff just to keep rules and regulations off their back to maintain the kind of forward thinking that made them great in the first place. Jeffrey Immelt after Barrack Obama was elected was put into a very difficult position. Here was a president openly hostile to corporations and business that would see GE as a massive target for socialist implementation. As a CEO it is first the job of such a person to guide their corporation through the potential threats that exist so that those gates of innovation can stay open for such fledging ideas shown in the commercial. So Immelt did what he thought was best, he made a partner out of Obama running the president’s Jobs Council for a few years. In so doing he was able to exploit the lack of financial understanding of the barely concealed socialist by enacting 54 of the 60 recommendations made by the Council—such as fast tracking key infrastructure projects and selling more leases for both oil and gas production. But in the end, only 4 of those recommendations were completed as is typical of government which loses focus quickly as life in the Belt Way quickly kills off ideas like an African hunter on the Serengeti. Under the auspices of government ideas quickly become extinct—and Jeffrey Immelt’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness was one of the first things that Obama hung on his trophy wall. Obama tried to use GE to stimulate his economy, and largely took Immelt’s advice without knowing anything else to do—but failed to nurture those ideas into fruition

For the last 20 years the GE90 engines from GE have been a game changer in commercial aviation. It is largely because of this engine that oversea travel has been on the increase just because now airlines can perform such a task with such a powerful engine without massive fuel consumption. That engine is exactly what the metaphorical commercial about GE innovation was all about. It was one of the great leaps of innovation from American culture that could have only come from such a large corporation that embraces such invention. And to make the GE90 work, it took a lot of the best minds at the time in the field of aerospace to pull it off.

There is a new generation of engines coming to serve for the next two decades, so the GE90 today is something of a Payton Manning in aviation. It’s still a great engine, but it has set the bar very high and newer, younger players are entering the market to break those previous records—but it took the pace setter first to show everyone what the innovation looked like. While some may look at the GE commercial in respect to Immelt’s work with President Obama and cry foul, I have a tremendous amount of respect for those open doors which allow scary little creatures like new ideas a place to go. I wish there were a thousand GEs in America—and I believe there is plenty of room for all of them—but unfortunately for most, they end up in the trophy case of some politician’s game wall—hunted, killed, and stuffed for memory.

I don’t watch much television so I didn’t see the GE commercial until I was watching the start of NASCAR last weekend. I love NASCAR because of the innovations—the new MAC tools, the tires, the corporate sponsors. I love seeing a pit crew in action trying to troubleshoot a problem in record time to get their driver back on the track as quickly as possible. There are a lot of ideas born on those tracks which end up in the cars we drive, so I love to just watch NASCAR for a glimpse into the future. It was in looking for innovations that I actually saw the GE commercial.

Recently I had one of the worst days of my life where everything that could go wrong did and there was just a mess of activity that had to be cleaned up from more of those idea killing vermin. So to brighten my day, my wife went to McDonald’s and picked up a couple of Big Mac meals so I could watch the news while enjoying that wonderful idea from McDonald’s ancient past—which I still think is one of the greatest inventions ever created. Big Macs would be an impossibility to the typical hunter and gatherer in New Guinea or Africa—yet out of the mind of Ray Kroc came a company called McDonald’s that made quality fast food easy and affordable on the go—the Big Mac was created. When I have a really bad day-one of those days where it’s difficult to breathe from one moment to the next, I typically get a Big Mac and just like that—I’m good to go. My worries and concerns evaporate. It’s not just the taste of the burger that drives my interest, it’s the story of McDonald’s itself that does. It reminds me of what innovation is supposed to look like. As rapidly as McDonald’s makes Big Macs it is astonishing that they always come out well, cooked perfectly, possessing just the right amount of lettuce, onions and sauce, and can be done so quickly. To this very day if I buy a Big Mac in Florida, it will be made nearly to the same specifications as one that I might buy in Wisconsin. They are little miracles—now taken for granted like the GE90 jet engine—but they have changed the way the world interacts with each other—and each one of those ideas is beautiful.

So I have a major soft spot for the GE commercial with the little alien idea being born to the voice over about ideas being scary. Ideas are the natural-born enemy of the way things are. They are ridiculed and mocked, and are often hunted by members of the political class for sport. When Immelt joined Obama’s Job’s Council, the move to me was to protect all the ideas brewing at GE from the hunters of the political class who want to destroy those wonderful creatures before they can bloom into beautiful creatures. That’s what a CEO should do, and if that sometimes means drawing fire away from those they are trying to protect—then so be it. Because as the commercial says, “under the proper care, [ideas] become something beautiful. They do.

The task of a massive corporation like GE is to create an environment where ideas can grow. Not everyone within that culture embodies such a spirit, of course, but in general, the philosophy of the company must seek to strive for such creation. If it does, then it will bring into the world ideas that would otherwise be destroyed by humanity always speculative, and short-sighted. It was a bold commercial from a company that really didn’t need to push the limits of perception—yet they did. They didn’t have to ruffle any feathers, yet they did—and for that I deeply appreciate the commercial. It is good to see that GE is not playing it so safe in the public relations market—and that they are remembering who and what they are—and how they got where they are today. Ideas are beautiful—even when they look scary to the un-enterprising and clandestine political hunters. It is good to be the natural-born enemy to the way things are. That is the spirit of innovation—and the direct benefit is humanity and its offspring.

Rich Hoffman