Alibaba’s Success Started With Just 1 Sentence

To have an innovative mindset, you must think globally — but that means more than you might think

Recently, I discussed the first step to leading with an innovative mindset: building a learning culture. In this column, I’m exploring the second step: thinking globally.

When people hear “thinking global,” they might imagine focusing on international business and finding markets around the world. In the context of creating an innovative mindset, however, the word “global” means much more.

Consider Chinese e-commerce and tech company Alibaba. This wildly successful, multinational e-commerce company is guided by a simple mission: Make it easy to do business anywhere.

Alibaba’s platform connects small mom-and-pop sellers to customers around the world. The sellers on their platform aren’t competitors — they’re partners. Their interests are aligned. The company shares data with brands to empower them to sell more on the platform. The better the partners do, the better Alibaba does.

This is thinking globally — thinking broadly and beyond your own company. It’s an approach that not only helped make Alibaba one of the largest companies in the world, but also helped lift millions of people out of poverty and into successful entrepreneurship.

Alibaba’s simple, clear mission is an example of the first of three steps to thinking globally.

1. Provide vision and purpose.

Alibaba’s mission — make it easy to do business anywhere — led its workers to develop the open-ecosystem, collective entrepreneurship model that fulfills that mission. Leaders must make sure that their entire company is grounded in the same mission. Provide clear direction and vision that all others can follow, and, just like Alibaba, create a mission that inspires others to think beyond boundaries.

2. Slow down, explore and connect the dots.

Thinking globally can be defined as thinking holistically, with the big, broad picture always in mind. To see the forest and the trees. To slow down — even if just temporarily — to explore, to be more deliberate in understanding the details of a situation, to observe patterns, and to consider different points of view and perspectives. This type of thinking requires us to be open to possibility. Rather than identifying right answers or wrong answers, the goal is to explore multiple possibilities.

The animation company Pixar exemplifies this with a collaborative technique it calls plussing. Plussing asks collaborators to build on ideas without using judgmental language. Instead of rejecting an idea, a collaborator finds something to build on, which inspires another collaborator to find something else to build on, and so on. “I like that Nemo is a clownfish. What if we made one of his fins much smaller than the other?”

This technique allows every idea to be explored for all its possibilities. It also inspires people to remain curious, listen actively, respect the ideas of others, and contribute their own. This type of “global thinking,” keeping all possibilities on the table, inspires others to not only think outside the box, but to imagine there is no box.

3. Hire T-shaped employees.

Design and consulting company Ideo has coined the term T-shaped employee to describe its ideal candidates: People with skills that allow them to contribute to the creative process (that’s the vertical part of the T) and a predisposition for collaboration, empathy, and curiosity (the horizontal part of the T).

Ideo understands that empathy and curiosity are related, as empathy allows employees to see things from others’ perspectives, while curiosity inspires interest in others. They recognize that when people perform at their best, it’s because their skills are accompanied by curiosity that leads them to ask questions, explore, and collaborate.

Effective leaders look for ways to nurture their employees’ curiosity and encourage them to think globally–understanding perspectives, points of view, and disciplines beyond their own.

Thinking globally is the second step to creating an innovative mindset. Providing clear vision and purpose, exploring and connecting the dots, and hiring T-shaped employees can create the conditions that inspire others to think globally.

How do you create space for yourself and others to not just think outside the box, but to also think there’s no box?