UPS OSU Solveathon

A Master Class on Thought Diversity

The people who don’t know what they don’t know can also change the world.

Charlie Covert | UPS

Our most vexing problems can leave us jaded. Whether it’s solving global hunger or getting medicine to impoverished communities, some might believe these humanitarian pursuits are more aspirational than achievable. Some 22,000 children die from poverty each day.

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Thought diversity is ensuring people with an array of experiences are tackling pressing issues.

Yet, Nelson Mandela famously insisted that these are solvable problems. “Like slavery and apartheid,” he said, “poverty is not natural. It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Leading logistics and philanthropic experts agree. But like challenges of any consequence, they require input from a wide range of stakeholders.

So what’s the recipe for a better solution?

I’d argue that thought diversity, ensuring people with an array of experiences and talents are tackling our most pressing issues, is the most vital ingredient.

That was the impetus behind the first UPS Humanitarian Solvathon at The Ohio State University. UPS and Ohio State recently partnered with a trio of humanitarian organizations – the American Red Cross, Save the Children and the World Health Organization – to present complex logistical problems to university students and challenge them to identify creative, new solutions.

We know that logistics, the planning and execution of the movement of funds, goods and information, is what makes it possible to succeed. But we didn’t know how students would take to this message.

We weren’t disappointed.

Dozens of students spent a day during their fall break “white-boarding” new ways to streamline the logistics behind food delivery, improve the distribution of pandemic influenza vaccines and optimize the supply chain for the movement of life-saving blood. Each NGO presented a unique problem for a group of students to solve.

Such issues have tested prominent philanthropic groups and businesses for decades, but the students took them on with vigor and creativity.

Students who didn’t yet know what they didn’t know led brainstorming sessions. It was both refreshing and inspiring. They came to the table with a completely blank slate, unencumbered by process, tradition or previous biases.

I saw future engineers, health professionals, senior executives and data specialists offering a distinct point of view. I saw the leaders of tomorrow.

They probably didn’t realize it, but these students were also putting on a master class on the importance of thought diversity.

[Also on Longitudes: The Making of a Tenacious Leader]

The groupthink boogeyman

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Experience is great. Knowledge is invaluable. But in certain settings, they can be constraining.

A growing number of businesses know that diversity applies not just to gender, race, age and culture, but also to how you think.  In addition to facilitating new ideas, diverse thought helps you avoid a potential killer: groupthink.

Experience is great. Knowledge is invaluable. But in certain settings, they also can be constraining.

If the same group of people examines the same problem long enough, they tend to develop a monolithic point of view. They’re less receptive to change, and they’re too often stuck in their ways.

In contrast, students haven’t been told, this won’t work or that’s not the way we do things.

Here’s the phrase I heard most frequently during the Solvathon: What if?

These students wanted to better understand how the world works. And in the process of pursuing that enlightenment, they demonstrated how the best ideas are produced in diverse settings.

Many of these so-called Millennials had probably never examined how logistics makes the world go round. And yet, they offered polished, actionable recommendations to leaders from globally recognized philanthropic organizations.

What they lacked in experience they made up for with their ability to communicate. They showed why problem solvers are the most valuable assets in today’s marketplace.

They didn’t try to solve every problem in one swoop. Instead, they took to their whiteboards in search of practical, cost-effective ways to enhance supply chains for philanthropic causes. Above all else, they wanted their prescriptions to be pragmatic and actionable.

[Also on Longitudes: Why the Best Bosses are Flexible]

Paying it forward

Fostering diversity is just one part of the process. Once you’ve created an environment ripe for innovation, you must determine how each stakeholder is best suited to contribute to the overall cause.

There’s real-world applicability for this thought experiment. At UPS, we’re firm believers in the power of tailoring your skillset for the greater good.

On the philanthropic front, private-sector companies often have resources unavailable to even the most expert non-governmental organizations. Employees are incredibly effective in humanitarian situations when their professional experience overlaps with their personal interests.

That’s certainly the case for some 435,000 UPS employees who volunteer throughout the 220 countries and territories we serve.

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We’re well on our way to a better tomorrow, thanks in large part to the diversity of ideas. 

So imagine a world where companies loan employees to NGOs. A seasoned marketing expert joins the team to help expand business opportunities, an accounting specialist pours over financial records looking for ways to lower distribution costs and a supply chain wizard gets products into previously unreachable markets.

This is diversity at work.

That’s why it was encouraging to see such a diverse group of Ohio State students participating in the Solvathon event.

Some had studied public health, others, international affairs and biology – almost any subject you could imagine. As you might expect, there were plenty of prospective engineers in the room as well.

It will take an unprecedented commitment by businesses, humanitarian organizations, governments and the communities where we live to prove the naysayers wrong and halt injustices like hunger and rampant sickness.

But if these students were any indication, we’re well on our way to a better tomorrow, thanks in large part to the diversity of ideas. goldbrown2

Click here to read a case study from the Solvathon: Save the Children

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Charlie Covert is Vice President, Customer Solutions, at UPS where he is responsible for supply chain design, sustainability, and consulting for the automotive, aerospace, government, professional services and industrial manufacturing sectors.

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Reprinted with permission of Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy.

3 Comments

  1. George Gillas

    Excellent read. Thank you!

    The news is replete with stories of college students causing mayhem on numerous campuses – complaining about having “safe places” and being easily offended at the slightest thing. It is refreshing to be reassured that most students are motivated, excited and focused on solutions to problems that are much bigger than themselves.

    Refreshing also to read “thought diversity” as the main ingredient for creative problem solving. What is more important to a business than people who can solve problems? So many businesses get caught up in diversity being primarily based on race or culture; but if that group all has the same innate problem solving strategies; there is no diversity.

    Businesses can benefit from creating teams with real problem solving synergy by utilizing Kolbe indexes (www.kolbe.com) which identify how we naturally solve problems and take action when given the freedom to be ourselves. It is a remarkably reliable and predictable index that can make a huge difference in the “thought diversity” and problem solving synergy of a team.

    Thanks again for the uplifting read about America’s future leaders. We need more like this!

  2. George Walsh

    I’m curious to know if the session included discussion of the current logistical realities in the world and compared these realities with the groups’ plans. Most importantly it current realities tended to outweigh potentials did it seem to lower their spirits or make them all the more energized to find solutions?

    1. Charlie Covert

      George,

      We absolutely discussed the issues in the context of “real world” logistics realities. The NGO partners obviously are aware of these realities, which include budgetary constraints in addition to global logistics challenges.

      The teams were very energized to find solutions in this context. The students love to see “real world” challenges because it allows them to apply what they are learning in the classroom to actual situations. They were also very creative around budget constraints in the recommendations they developed. They also appreciated seeing our whiteboard approach in action.

      We conducted parts of this session just as we would have if the conversation didn’t include the students. We also incorporated learning discussions to provide background and/or answers to student’s questions.

      thanks, Charlie

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