THE BLOG
04/10/2014 12:35 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2014

What is a Public Innovator?

There's an old adage that half of life is just showing up. Perhaps there's some truth to that. But what about the other half? For public innovators, it's critical. One of the key things that distinguishes public innovators is how they engage in the world around them.

I've been guiding people to become public innovators for over 25 years. Public innovators focus on how they can solve problems in communities and change how people and organizations work together. They are as interested in transforming how things get done as they are in moving the needle on specific challenges. These individuals hold and cherish firm ideals to improve society. They are equally pragmatic in wanting to see results. And they understand the necessity of taking risks but not foolhardy ones.

The best public innovators never equate public innovation with creating something new or shiny. Nor do they think that the value of their public innovation is reflected in the complexity of their solutions. The challenge in communities is not a lack of complexity, but a lack of clarity. Too often there is a rush to embrace complicated initiatives, processes and structures while losing sight of what matters most to people.

Public innovators guard against these impulses and reflexes by doggedly understanding the world as it is. A clear view of reality allows them to gauge what needs to be done, where they want to go and how to begin. There is no substitute for being attuned to reality. Of course, this requires being open to learning about what is happening around you, figuring out how to adapt to it, and finding ways to re-calibrate one's efforts as conditions change.

It means being ready and willing to see and hear others, especially those with whom we disagree. And to recognize that there are those we cannot even see or hear yet because they aren't even on our radar. Public innovators want to know where or how they can find and engage such people.

The instinct of public innovators is not simply to adopt what has worked elsewhere but to focus on fit. They ask: What is the context in which I am working and what strategies will fit this context? Finding the right fit requires a certain fitness on the part of the public innovator: to make room to discover those answers that are harmonious with the surroundings.

None of this is especially easy. Public innovators must bring their full selves to their work in communities. They must be present, willing to listen, open to various signals, engaging with others. It means being intentional in the choices and judgments they make. It demands having enough humility to discern what they cannot control so that they can apply themselves to what they can affect. There is no room for resignation.

I've set a goal that by 2016 The Harwood Institute will train 5,000 public innovators and grow our Public Innovator Corps to 100,000 members. The good news is that every one of us has the innate potential to be a public innovator. You don't need to have a certain title, live on a certain side of town, or have graduated from a certain college. I know public innovators who are presidents of some of the largest non-profits in the world and those individuals who work in local neighborhoods with little recognition. We need them all.