How Asking ‘What If?’ Will Lead Us to Tomorrow’s Innovations

Today's leaders should encourage their teams to journey into the unknown.

We often talk about how technology – and more specifically, how the Internet – has changed business, but we don’t often discuss how the Internet has changed leadership. The style of leadership we need today is very different from what worked 50, 20 – or even 10 – years ago.

Just as the Internet enabled a generation of entrepreneurs to experiment with new business models – a massive exercise in “What if?” that has disrupted whole industries – anyone who manages people must also venture into the unknown.

Today’s leaders have to promote innovation, encouraging their teams to find new ways of doing things and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

Today’s leaders also need to achieve new levels of transparency and openness. And these leadership traits can never be thought of as finished – a box that’s been checked for good.

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As a manager, you too must continue to change and grow.

As a manager, you too must continue to change and grow.

In the past, leadership was often about issuing orders from the sideline and executing those orders. We used to describe leadership as a process of “command and control.” The implication was that we were commanding and controlling people, and that was enough.

But today, in a business like UPS’s, moving 18 million packages a day around the world from places like Chicago to Shanghai requires a perfect harmony of people, processes and technology. To succeed, we need for our people to adopt a different mindset. We need them not only to think differently, but to act differently.

More and more, we need our employees to ask, “What if?”

[Also on Longitudes: The Route to the Future]

Challenging our employees

In recent years, we’ve challenged our people to think of themselves as United Problem Solvers. Our goal is to have every employee think about our customers’ challenges and opportunities as problems that UPS can help them solve.

We’re training and developing our people to take that same mindset they’ve used to make UPS world-class with our operating model – and apply that same force externally to work with our customers in a much more scalable way than we’ve ever done before.

Our purpose is to make or keep our customers’ supply chains – and their businesses – world-class.

We’re doing this because our industry, and the industries we serve, has changed.

Our customers are dealing with levels of market and supply-chain complexity that are unprecedented. Customers expect – and need – us to do far more than before. 

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Customers expect – and needus to do far more than before.

Supply, demand and value

We often talk about how the supply chain is now the “demand chain,” which is really the value chain, and how all those pieces are now interconnected and interwoven.

Nowadays, the value is in the links of the chain rather than the chain itself.

More specifically, the value is where the links connect, rather than the links themselves.

If you want to create value, it can’t be done as it was in the past within the typical silos – sales, marketing, operations, engineering, finance and accounting, and so forth. That value has already been captured.

What’s valuable now is how it all connects.

The entire value chain process of any business or organization must be as close to totally seamless and transparent as possible to give customers the level of service they need.

This requires a relatively flat organization. It doesn’t really matter to me – or the groups I work with – where the input comes from. It’s about what they bring to the table.

You have to encourage everybody to bring their best ideas, so we can cultivate those ideas. We need people who can think outside their original frame of reference – outside the discipline they’ve been trained in.

So it’s not about running the same game plan that you ran yesterday.

It’s about what I can add, or what’s adjacent to the game plan I’m running today, that can identify a new opportunity for my customer.

What hasn’t changed is that a good leader has to be a motivator. Of course, in the past that might have meant getting someone to execute a repetitive task well.

[Also on Longitudes: Preserving the Promise of Equal Opportunity]

Thinking differently

Today, it’s often about bringing out the innovative side of somebody in a much more complex and ambiguous environment.

First, you have to choose people who are passionate about creating meaningful change – and enthusiastic about pursuing initiatives that can transform your business.

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To encourage innovation, sometimes that means throwing people into projects that aren’t yet baked.

And when these people come to you with ideas, you let them run with those ideas.

I love when people have ideas. I think that’s an increasingly important trait these days.

If people bring me an idea, I turn it right back to them and say, “Yes, let’s try it!” That creates a lot of motivation for folks to make things happen.

To encourage innovation, sometimes that means throwing people into projects that aren’t yet baked.

It could mean investigating a new opportunity that we may, in the end, decide not to do.

But putting them into those types of projects – nurturing them along the way, encouraging them and giving them frequent feedback – it is the best way to stretch them, and challenge them, in areas they haven’t worked in before.

Even if the project at hand, as expected, doesn’t pan out, they and others can often apply what they learn to develop creative approaches to other projects.

Because if an organization asks “What if?” enough – and empowers its people to act on the “What ifs?” – it will discover new opportunities and new possibilities.

And it will discover that, in the words of UPS founder Jim Casey, our horizon is as distant as our mind’s eye wishes it to be. goldbrown2

This article originally appeared on Alan Gershenhorn’s LinkedIn and was republished with permission. 


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Alan Gershenhorn Chief Commercial Officer at UPS.

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