In this episode, we wanted to find out, “What are the biggest barriers to innovation in 2020?” To find out, Innovation Leader spoke to David Lee, Vice President of Innovation and New Ventures at UPS.
Kaitlin Milliken: Hey! You’re listening to Innovation Answered: Essentials, a special podcast segment for busy innovators in big organizations. In each episode, we’ll break down an article or book excerpt with the author — and read it aloud for you. I’m your host, Kaitlin Milliken.
At the start of September, our team released a special issue of our magazine. The cover headline: “Innovation Matters More.” In this edition, 25 innovation experts — from current corporate innovators, to academics and consultants — shared their best advice on preparing for an uncertain future.
This week, we chatted with one of those contributing writers: David Lee. David is the Vice President of Innovation and New Ventures at UPS. The shipping and logistics industry has faced increased demands in 2020. While office shipping has declined, lockdowns and stay at home advisories have increased consumer’s reliance on ecommerce. David shares how the Atlanta-based company has used innovation to enter new businesses — like on-demand storage — as well as his advice for other companies faced with year’s challenges.
Thanks David for being here to discuss your article on the “Biggest Barriers to Innovation,” which opens up this issue of our magazine.
David Lee: Great to be here, Katie.
Kaitlin Milliken: So to get us started, can you tell us a little bit about your role at UPS?
David Lee: I joined UPS about four years ago in a role that was new for the company. It’s a proud company with a great history. 113 years old this year, started in a basement in Seattle, and now grown into this tremendous worldwide force for logistics and just moving things around the world. But I think the company had figured out that a lot of the routines and culture that it developed, were fabulous to get it to where it was but that it needed to reinvent itself and figure out what did it need to become in order to remain in a strong position. The world was changing around it. And so over the last few years, what we’ve been doing is building a series of programs to bring modern ways of thinking and modern ways of approaching problem solving to the company.
One of the interesting things about the culture of the place is that many of the people who lead the company have spent their entire careers at UPS. And in some ways, that’s wonderful because they know everything there is to know about how to pack a truck, and how to move things around the country, and how to do scheduling, and how to do logistics. But what’s also interesting with that, is that the perspective on how do you solve a problem, most people only know how to solve problems the way that they have learned growing up in that company. So what we tried to do is to bring modern innovation modes of thinking like design thinking, entrepreneurship, minimum viable products, user centered design and help to insert those methods into the way that the company solves problems.
Kaitlin Milliken: I’d like to talk a little bit about sort of the challenges of this particular moment. Obviously more people are having things shipped to their homes because of lockdowns and stay at home advisories. What are some of the challenges that your team at UPS and also just the industry in general are facing in this moment?
David Lee: Obviously, no one expected this right when the outbreak started in February of 2020. We’ve been planning on a number of changes that we would expect to take two to three years to occur, right with the growth of e commerce, more deliveries being made to people’s homes, you know, change in demographics, but everything got faster. One of the funniest things I’ve seen in this period is a tweet where somebody was saying, “Who is driving your company’s digital transformation? Is it your CEO? Is it your CTO? Is it COVID-19?”
And for us, the answer is without question the pandemic and the social changes that have come from it have forced us to very quickly redesign our network and make sure that we can operate in a way that meets the exceedingly high demand for residential deliveries, and then making sure that we get the essential goods to people that they need.
Kaitlin Milliken: And what have been the elements that have really empowered you to make those changes and respond?
David Lee: We’ve been able to get the authority to just make changes. In the article, I talked about one of the startup companies that we launched called Storage on Demand. And we pivoted that idea and that concept. It was a new startup that was about six months old inside of our company, based on a retail product, but because of all the disruptions in COVID and how large retailers and ports had been shut down, we pivoted that group within a matter of four weeks to design and launch an enterprise product to help move products from one part of the country to the other, stage them into temporary storage, and then put them into transportation networks in a way that was not disruptive to anybody’s business. And we had the permission and authority to act quickly. And I think that’s been one of the best parts of this thing.
Kaitlin Milliken: And I’d love to just hear if there’s any advice that you have for teams that are also navigating challenges in this moment and are looking to innovate their way through this pandemic.
David Lee: The great tragedy of working in innovation is that it is seen by so many large organizations is not core. And so, as I talk to my peers and friends who have all grown up in these types of roles, there’s a level of fear that exists in all of us, because these are the types of things that cut first, right? And I think the truth of the matter is there’s not much we can do about that. Those are the landmines that we have to navigate as innovation professionals, but these periods of uncertainty in our careers and our lives, this is what the innovation skill set and innovation mindset allows us to be good at.
We don’t know what’s coming next. We don’t know exactly how our actions and our decisions will impact the next six months or six years. But that ability to navigate uncertainty, this is what all the tools are for, right? We are designed to go find good solutions where no one knows how to solve a problem today. And so I would say, trust in the fact that as an innovation professional, despite the fear you may feel in your career, this is what we’re made for. These are the times that we’re built for.
Kaitlin Milliken: Thanks again David for joining us. We’ll have David read his piece right after this break.
Kaitlin Milliken: Can you believe it’s already the fall? Yes, time is a construct — six plus months of a pandemic has proved that — but there’s one big event this October that I’m really looking forward to. And that’s Impact 2020, Innovation Leader’s annual member conference. We’ll be holding the event completely virtually from October 20-23. We’ll have all the same great content as last year — random networking opportunities, breakout sessions, swag boxes, cocktail making classes, interactive workouts — but you’ll be able to participate from anywhere. Here to highlight some of our speakers at the event is Caitlin Harper, IL’s Events Manager. So Caitlin, tell us a little bit about our speakers this year.
Caitlin Harper: I’m really excited for our speaker lineup this year. I think it’s most likely our best of all time. We have speakers from Nokia, Lyft, FordX, Walmart, Rosetta Stone, Amazon Pay, Tiffany’s. The list kind of goes on and on and I’m very excited for you to see them.
Kaitlin Milliken: We also have really great keynote speakers. Can you tell people who they can expect on the mainstage?
Caitlin Harper: I’m so excited for the C-suite executives that will be hitting our main stage this year. We have the Chief Innovation Officer of Citibank, the CEO of Barre3, and the CEO of Converse, just to hit a few.
Kaitlin Milliken: Thanks, Caitlin. Each of our passes also come with a video replay, so you can take all the event’s learnings with you. You can learn more and get a ticket at innovationleader.com/impact2020.
Now, let’s jump back into this week’s article with David Lee.
[David Lee reads his article “Biggest Barriers to Innovation.”]
Kaitlin Milliken: You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered: Essentials, a special segment from our podcast for corporate innovators. This episode was written and produced by me, Kaitlin Milliken. Special thanks to David Lee for his insights. You can read David’s article, and pieces from 24 other contributors, in the latest edition of our magazine. You can get the PDF and special bonus content at innovationleader.com/mag. We’ll have more bonus episodes and Essentials episodes soon, so you’ll never have to skim. Subscribe to our show on your streaming platform of choice for more updates. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.