The Innovators

A week ago, I was invited to attend an i.c. stars conference to celebrate their innovators of the year.  i.c. stars is a non-profit organization in Chicago for adults with a high school diploma or GED. Using project-based learning and full immersion teaching, i.c. stars provides an opportunity for change-driven, future leaders to develop skills in business and technology.  Their goal? 1,000 community leaders by 2020.

The banquet I attended was filled to the brim with CIOs and technologists from around the Chicago area.  Thing that surprised me? The real innovators were i.c. stars themselves.  I admit I went into the banquet with no grounding or expectations.  I was invited about two days before and didn’t have a guide to situate me on what I was doing there, what the group was about, etc.  But there were a couple of takeaways I didn’t expect out of this conference:

  • Culture is a process; the filter through which you see the world.
  • A “Community Leader” is someone who creates sustainable opportunities for others.
  • Who is witnessing your change? If you’re a tree, who is noticing your bark? Those are the people you need to keep close to you, as they’re your guides.

My first thought about some of the people attending the event were: these aren’t particularly innovative people.  I typically think of innovators along Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation curve:

Rogers Diffusion of Innovation
Rogers' Diffusion of Innovation

Most people reading this blog are in the Innovator/Early Adopter camp.  We seem to reinforce each other (you and I).  I have a hard time considering myself an Innovator, because in my mental model of innovation, it requires Bloom’s “Synthesis” and for all the ideas I can generate, I wonder how many of them are truly original.  Maybe that’s too high a standard; we can discuss it.

To be clear, Roger’s Diffusion of Innovations Theory isn’t about making vs adopting — it’s all about adopting.  You can tell who the innovators are if they’re first.  Period; as Wikipedia defines:

Innovators are the first individuals to adopt an innovation. Innovators are willing to take risks, youngest in age, have the highest social class, have great financial lucidity, very social and have closest contact to scientific sources and interaction with other innovators.

If you and I are innovators in learning technology, chances are we have our fair share of challenges getting the buy-in.  That’s why we have our communities of practice (#lrnchat is a CoP); some of us have our quasi-secret -societies.

What was interesting to me about the i.c.stars event was more to the point of how many people are buying into how the group was innovating.  Although the attendees I met were pretty distributed in age, they met all the other qualifiers, handily (though my own financial lucidity and wealth aren’t exactly present). The i.c.stars approach at innovation is an inclusive one; very key to adoption.  There were a few attendees and volunteers in the organization that I was able to connect with (note: I wish I knew more about telecommunications for broader conversation opportunities); the graduates from the i.c. stars program had a real light inside.

Every graduate I met from the program, working as webmasters or founding interactive startups — these guys were really interesting people.  They are bringing something new to the idea landscape.  Their experiences and backgrounds are just different from the Innovators, as wikipedia defines.  I met at least four graduates of the i.c.stars program, and each one of them were the kind of person I’d want on my team to start cranking out code, content and ideas.  Why? Two reasons: a) They show up; b) They’re different from me and everyone I work with.

Each graduate had someone who pulled them into this program from an environment where their out-of-school earnings would be 25% of what they were making after leaving i.c.stars — a 4-fold difference in income changes lives and the lives that surround them.  They had to show-up every day to stay in the program (not just “attend” but be “present”), but each participant in i.c. stars has literally a community around them to support and encourage them on their journey through the program.  They have people who are appreciating their change; supporting it.

So, my brothers and sisters who are innovating for your organizations today, I want you to think about this… who’s noticing your evolution?  If you’re leading, how are you creating sustainable opportunities for the people around you?