As a Ninja Van co-founder, I would like to share why creativity is essential to boost innovation at work—and how to keep it alive.

Many people assume that working in tech requires a very analytical and orderly “left-brain” way of thinking and working. As the co-founder of Southeast Asian leading logistics tech startup Ninja Van, I’d like to challenge that notion and argue that taking a creative approach is essential for anyone thinking of, or currently working in tech.

To illustrate my point, I’d like to start by sharing a bit about the tinkering I used to do in my earlier years. When I was a child, I was fascinated by how things worked and were always trying to understand how they were created.

Whenever my parent’s Discman (anyone remembers these?), television, or toaster broke down, it would be passed on to me and I would happily spend hours disassembling them and inspecting their insides.

These childhood “adventures” in tinkering have helped to train and rewire my brain to make the most of my ability to generate original ideas.

When we first started Ninja Van, none of the co-founders or myself had any logistics background or experience and we had to learn so much about the operational intricacies of the business. We were jacks of all trades, often wearing multiple hats and working across various roles of warehouse sorters, delivery drivers, account managers, customer service officers, and software developers.

Through these tough times, we translated our experiences into lines of code, creating hassle-free logistics solutions.  Since then, the company has grown exponentially to become Southeast Asia’s largest and fastest-growing tech-enabled logistics company, providing supply chain solutions for business across the region.

Why pushing the boundaries could be the best thing for your creativity

We’ve all heard the overused cliche “think outside the box” but this adage does ring true in some instances. Ninja Van’s ability to create meaningful and relevant products and solutions meant we had to brainstorm beyond the boundaries laid out by more established logistics companies at that time.

We were able to do that by being obsessed with solving an important problem: How do we provide hassle-free delivery services for businesses of all sizes across Southeast Asia?

I recall the early days at Ninja Van when we were managing our warehouse and sort centre operations within a tiny office, with our desks propped up against the racks where we stored our parcels. Out of this tiny facility, we were able to deliver up to 100 parcels a day with the three vans we had at that point.

As our customer base grew, we realized that our operational processes were not linearly scaled; delivering and sorting 500 parcels took more than five times the amount of time it usually did with 100 parcels. We required way more floor space and much more time.

One night, the three of us co-founders (Chang Wen, Boxian and myself) finished sorting the parcels at close to 5 AM, giving us only three hours of sleep before we had to start our morning delivery runs. At that point, thinking ahead to more of such days and nights almost gave us second thoughts about whether we were in the right business!

Right after we wrapped up the deliveries for the day, we all sat down to re-work the sorting process. We pushed on, wrote lines of codes, and deployed our very first “parcel router” module that very same day. The result? Sorting 500 parcels now took 30 mins!

Side projects can help you move forward

What helps you tap into your imagination and creative self? Build a portfolio of projects. When I was a teenager, I had way too many side projects. One of which I am proud of (or maybe not so proud of) is an electronic poker-style game where the loser had to gulp an alcoholic drink which would be dispensed automatically by a pump.

Side projects serve as a powerful medium to explore different careers, test out business ideas and gain new skills, even at the workplace. Employees were pleasantly surprised when I floated an idea to build a pizza oven at our office’s patio last year.

But I believe that setting aside time for creative pursuits such as gardening (we have our very own gardening club at Ninja Van) and building things from scratch helps our minds to focus and devise fresh approaches to solving problems.

Today’s challenges require a creative approach

The world we live in today needs creativity because problems aren’t getting simpler. We need to develop new ways of thinking in order to design better solutions, especially given the higher expectations that customers have these days. Companies that fail to innovate will be left behind.

Case in point, the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak has accelerated the digital transformation in both the professional and personal lives of the communities we serve. Ninja Van has progressively built up our digital infrastructure and engineering capabilities as the foundation of the business since day one of our inception, and we knew we had to find a safe and fuss-free solution that would give our parcel recipients the choice to customize their delivery experience.

Instead of creating a Ninja Van app that users would have to download, we decided to explore creating a system that would work across the most commonly used social messaging platforms already ubiquitous in Southeast Asia.

After weeks of late nights and user trials, we were finally able to launch the first version of our proprietary NinjaChat system, with the option to select contactless deliveries being one of the first functions available.

A word of advice from Ninja Van

I believe that creativity is one of the key skills of the future;  it is essential for problem-solving, strategizing, and generating ideas that will drive businesses forward. Does the way you conduct meetings need a rethink? Could you be more proactive in sharing your ideas with others? How can you mix things up and allow your mind to be more creative?

If you have some time, take a step back and relook what a typical workday could be structured – try questioning everything and you’ll soon find yourself becoming more engaged and innovative.

Shaun Chong is the CTO and Co-Founder of Ninja Van.

This article was originally published on e27: How Ninja Van’s gardening club boosts their tech innovation, published on October 4, 2021


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