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Citizens of Innovation Nation

09/27/2012 06:53 pm 18:53:43 | Updated Nov 27, 2012

In my last post, I wrote about the capitals of Innovation Nation -- the cities and schools where creativity, entrepreneurialism and academia are intersecting to produce hotbeds of innovation. Now I'd like to look at who lives in and who leads Innovation Nation.

The importance of the human element can't be understated: Innovators attract innovators. Silicon Valley is what it is because of innovator-entrepreneurs such as Peter Thiel, who has recently made headlines for his controversial -- but timely -- Thiel Fellowships, which pay promising young people $100,000 to drop out of college and pursue innovation. Ours is a culture where entrepreneurs and eggheaded risk takers are the new rock stars.

So which skill sets foster innovation, and which retard it?

One hallmark of successful innovators is an ability to find people to complement them -- the "yin for their yang," as Free the Idea Monkey co-author Mike Maddock told Forbes.com a few months ago. "[I]deas are easy, and execution is really hard." Maddock himself went through three assistants at his innovation firm, Maddock Douglas, because they were all like him. That led him to have a recruiter interview a dozen people who knew Maddock well to "find out what I sucked at," he says, then use that as criteria to hire his next assistant, who has now been with him for a decade. "Idea monkeys" need "ringleaders," the people who keep things moving.

Fast Company, which publishes a closely watched annual list of the 100 most creative people in business (note that "innovative" and "creative" are being used increasingly interchangeably), located some other creative skills for would-be innovators to cultivate. Among them: how to "be weirder" (with advice from Wes Anderson, Björk and CeeLo Green), "be more productive" (Facebook Head of Consumer Marketing Rebecca Van Dyck, Shaquille O'Neal) and "do good, well" (Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs Director Ma Jun, National Kidney Registry Founder Garet Hil).

The other thing that's striking about Fast Company's list is how many people near the top have "digital" in their titles or work for tech companies. The Internet provides endless possibilities for innovation.

More specifically, there's increasingly a social dimension to innovation, as a new crop of visionaries is addressing global challenges using the tools of connectivity. PopTech celebrates these leaders with annual groups of Social Innovation Fellows, who this year include Lukas Biewald, founder and CEO of CrowdFlower, which breaks large digital projects into small microtasks and distributes them to workers around the world, and Rachel Brown, founder and CEO of Sisi ni Amani Kenya, which uses mobile communication technology to enable peace builders, spurring democracy and reducing violence.

The Boston Globe's reader-nominated Most Innovative People in Massachusetts list isolated another quality: ambition. Its innovators include David Cancel, chief product officer at HubSpot, who built a software "personalization engine" called Performable that's used by entities from Rolling Stone to EMC Corp.; Stas Gayshan, who founded Space with a Soul, an incubator for nonprofit startups; and Matt Coates, an innovation consultant and, says The Globe, "specialist in breakthrough ideas" at Invention Machine Corp., whose clients include brands such as Boeing and Samsung.

Neil Patel of GeekWire recently posited his own top 10 list of the mental traits that, he says, have made people like WhitePages' Alex Algard, Cheezburger's Ben Huh and BuddyTV's Andy Liu "absolute masters at drawing profitable conclusions from problems and ideas from totally unrelated fields." Those traits are: recognizing patterns (lateral thinking), predicting (not just the obvious, but using peripheral vision), questioning (especially "Why not?"), coordinating (building trust), mastering (never stopping learning), experimenting (with constant little pet projects), deciding (remaining single-minded about one or two projects), networking (extended brainpower to tap into), persistence (and faith in themselves) and optimism.

Patel's bottom line: "True innovative people have a certain drive and energy about them that you like to be around."

Just as fundamentally, a Brian T. Horowitz post on CIO Update a few years ago pinpointed another trait (along with an ability to set the agenda, remarkable courage and a stomach for uncertainty), one that seems obvious and yet is elusive: "The most successful executives also have a clear understanding of what the oft-used term ["innovation"] means." Quoting John Kao, whose firm advises companies on large-scale innovation strategies, he wrote, "Innovation is about paying attention to how you change the way things operate in society."

People to watch
Alex Algard
Leslie Berland
Adam Brotman
David Cancel
Matt Coates
Bethenny Frankel
Ben Horowitz
Tony Hsieh
Ben Huh
LeBron James
Andy Liu
Erika Napoletano
Stefan Olander
Rebecca Van Dyck