Needed: Social Innovators

Truth be told, I have been known to irritate those in charge, albeit not intentionally.

This week, as we worked to expand the team that will put legs under a huge provincial initiative, I did it again. 

I realized afterward that it was largely the result of my assuming that everyone understood the nuances as well as the values brought by individuals who are best described as social innovators.

And yet, when it became clear that others didn’t necessarily understand their value, I floundered somewhat, finding it difficult to describe their characteristics and why they are so important.

It also became clear that our need for social innovators means that even our approach to recruitment is different. While most begin with a job description and then recruit, our approach has been to seek talent and values first.

I also learned that we may need a new lexicon to help us understand the different way of working that social innovators reflect. Not only do we need to understand the importance of what they do, we need to figure out how they fit or don’t fit with the jobs typically seen on an org chart. And heck, while we’re at it, let’s just admit that the traditional org chart gets in the way of social innovators who work best in a very flat hierarchy.

I do know that the social innovators we’re looking for don’t tend to respond to typical job advertisements or want to work in a traditional nine to five environment. And, although money is important, it’s not their key driver. They’re passionate about making a difference and as a result too often settle for less money and more hours. They think and strategize on their own time, and because they get excited when they’ve simplified something really complicated, they give away their knowledge to others who may not value the learning curve it took to get there.

But what exactly is a social innovator and why are they important?

Successful innovators tend to understand that the “how” is far less important than the “who”. Those I’m working with now always put the emphasis on people and relationships. This ability to nurture and strengthen relationships is a critical talent as it allows them to learn as well as spread and adapt ideas at all levels. These relationships, as they deepen over time, are what will ultimately sustain new approaches and make success travel.

As they build relationships, social innovators work across silos to forge alliances with the public, private and non-profit sectors, harnessing the power of both established institutions as well as those at the grassroots level. Along the way, they find unexpected allies, identify areas for working together, and develop formal and informal networks, coalitions and collaborations. In this way, step by step, and yet not without some pain along the way, barriers to change are eliminated. 

Despite the fact that social innovators are often very diverse, they do seem to share some common characteristics.

They’re usually persistent – some might call it stubborn, collaborative, good communicators, comfortable with chaos, creative, and entrepreneurial.

Adept social innovators also typically bring this amazing talent for being able to balance thinking and acting. As they work within complex, often chaotic settings, they seem to have this ability to stand still and identify a theme, pattern or system. Then they move quickly to take advantage of the opportunity.

One of my colleagues did that just this week, when she connected some rather obscure dots that led to a brilliant business model for the work we’re doing in communities that has the potential to sustain our work beyond the parameters of the project funding. Another one of our team members prompted a technology company to develop a system of credits that would allow social entrepreneurs like her to exchange her ideas and solutions for technical support.

Social innovators seem to be able to bring people together to learn and solve problems creating a synergy that moves vague, jello-like aspirations toward a clear vision and effective action.

So why are social innovators important to us?

Ultimately, if we’re going to make our communities better places to live, work and play we need social innovators who generate ideas, adjust, adapt, rework, and create.

Not sure about you, but I think those skills should land pretty high on the traditional org chart. 



Posted on 05-17-08

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