Do not look for “Sounding Boards” – look for “Questioning Boards”. (The Creativity Suite. Episode 06)

Interview with Julio Gil, International Manager in the Innovation and Advanced Technology Group at UPS.



UPS is a gigantic company. 495,000 employees (!) deliver 21.9 million(!) packages and documents – per day (!) to customers in 220 (!) countries and territories.

Excuse the many exclamation marks, but that is just insane.

I had the pleasure to talk about innovation within such a huge organization with Julio Gil. Julio is International Manager in the Innovation and Advanced Technology Group at UPS. He has spent the last 18 years driving innovation and logistics improvements, always looking for the next great disruptive technology. He’s passionate about robotics, Artificial Intelligence, AR/VR applications and drones, and he has developed over 30 patents.

At the “Innovation and Advanced Technology Group” they, amongst many other things, run workshops to come up with new ideas. Many organizations would put together groups of creative people to come up with ideas where they will be using each other as sounding boards. UPS does it a bit differently.

You see, according to Wikipedia a sounding board “may be used figuratively to describe a person who listens to a speech or proposal in order that the speaker may rehearse or explore the proposition more fully.”

But – and this is key – the original definition of a sounding board is “a structure placed above and sometimes also behind a pulpit or other speaking platforms which helps to project the sound of the speaker.” 

So a sounding board is just projecting what the speaker is saying/thinking.

If we look at inviting people to listen to our ideas and think of them as sounding boards we risk just amplifying our own ideas.

Julio has a much more radical approach to his creative process: He deliberately invites people who are critical, skeptical and not easily convinced. He calls this group: The Realists.

He then of course also invites creative, visionary and innovative people. Let’s call this group: “Imaginalists”.

The idea is that the creative “Imaginalists” will run into objections from the “Realists” around why a new idea will not work/cannot be done. That pushes the Imaginalists to develop their ideas further.

The Realists are there to question the creative ones – They are the Questioning boards

It is important, says Julio, that the Realists like innovation, that they are not aggressively pessimistic and that there is good chemistry between the two groups (so that the push back does not kill the creative spirit), or as he puts it: “if we only did ‘possible’ things, we would not do very much innovation”.

Julio confessed to me that many times the people who are invited to be Realists are not aware that they are there to play that part. Realists can often be found to be product owners, and others who work in the field where everyday restrictions and realities infect them with the “it can not be done-virus”.

But let’s be clear: The Realists are there to tell the Imaginalists why their “great idea” is crazy. Not only does that push the creative minds to try harder, but it also pulls the “far-out-there-ideas” back into the gravity of what is doable.

Julio laughed and said; “Creative people are sometimes living in a fantasy world, we need the realists to bring us back to reality…Not too far, our crazy ideas should still be crazy, but at least now they might be feasible…”

The role of the Imaginalist is to keep presenting ideas until that moment when the Realist is no longer convinced that he is right about something being impossible.

The dance between the Imaginalist and the Realist is what creates crazy – but sane – ideas. Grounded – but high flying – innovations.

The third group you need is: “The Solvers”.

Once an idea is mature enough and the team thinks it’s ready for the next step, it’ll be broken down into smaller – practical – problem statements that the “Solvers” will set out to figure out.

The Solvers are scientists, engineers, subject matter experts. People who can take those crazy but sane ideas and figure out how they can get done.

Learn from Gil and UPS and make sure to create groups that consist of both creative, free thinking, visionary “Imaginalists” and (!) reality grounded Realists who can work as Questioning Boards to the most crazy ideas that come flying.

Take it from a delivery company like UPS: That is how you deliver innovation.




Follow us