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Report on Business editor and Innovators at Work panelist Paul Waldie says a willingness to acknowledge failure can be an asset in business. ‘I think humility’s a real part of being open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.’

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail's Innovators at Work is a contest to recognize talented Canadians who not only have great ideas, but turn them into reality through their drive and their actions. Readers can nominate candidates here.

Creators, innovators and entrepreneurs tend to be intrinsically motivated to do their work. Their drive, in other words, often comes from within – from engagement and curiosity, and not from carrot-on-a-stick rewards such as profit or fame.

It's why the minds behind many of today's most successful businesses eschew traditional measures of success – why Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard, for instance, or why Steve Jobs took an annual salary of a dollar: They let their output speak to investors while their personal fate hung in the balance.

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Not all innovators make it to the Fortune 500, though, in spite of their dedication or even their impact. Most act quietly, particularly in the bastion of modesty called Canada, taking risks and developing products and processes that shift the paradigms of their sectors a little or a lot.

More often than not, these people leave a measurable influence on their industry, if not broader Canadian prosperity and productivity.

Today, The Globe and Mail is launching the Innovators at Work contest to recognize those Canadians whose entrepreneurship has made an indelible mark on their industries and communities. The series will profile creative business minds who not only come up with innovative ideas, but see them through to fruition to change the life of Canadians for the better.

Innovators have "a combination of spark, depth and practicality," says Sheldon Levy, president of Ryerson University in Toronto and one of five panelists who will determine the winners of the Innovators at Work contest. "I would describe it as the ability to almost see what others don't see, in identifying an opportunity to improve the status quo."

The simplest ideas – say, getting e-mail on your phone – have made some Canadians transformational innovators. "Take an example like BlackBerry in its earliest days. It's the ultimate invention innovation," says panelist Paul Waldie, editor of The Globe and Mail's Report on Business.

True innovators, Mr. Waldie says, think beyond traditional business models and products. "They get out of their niche, out of their comfort zone," he says. The willingness to acknowledge failure helps, too. "I think humility's a real part of being open to new ideas and new ways of doing things."

Unearthing Canadian business talent is crucial, says Doug Watt, director of industry and business strategy with the Conference Board of Canada. In today's sluggish economy, he says the country puts too much emphasis on its raw resources, including lumber and oil and gas, and isn't focused enough on creating new value among those resources and working toward greater productivity.

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The country ranks just 14th in global competitiveness worldwide, according to the World Economic Forum.

"If you have a lot of a good thing, sometimes people rest on their laurels, recognize what they're doing is serving them well, and the continue along that path," Mr. Watt says.

The Conference Board released a 129-page report this week examining how companies, governments, educational institutions and individuals can better promote innovation. "Canada is at a stage in its developed economy where it needs to be innovative, to create new value and opportunities with the talent and resources we have," Mr. Watt says.

The deck, however, is improbably stacked against Canada's creative problem-solvers: Not only is Canada "weak" at promoting business innovation, according to Conference Board research, but traditional education systems rarely encourage the type of thinking that leads to innovation.

Tony Wagner, expert in residence at Harvard University's Innovation Lab and author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, says today's culture of schooling is also to blame, and "fundamentally at odds" with learning to be an innovator. Reward and punishment for grades and advancement, he says, don't help these "intrinsically motivated" people who become innovators.

Still, many parents and teachers have pushed against the norm, helping young people to become creative problem-solvers by encouraging "play, passion and purpose," Mr. Wagner says. These people grow to take risks, make mistakes, work collaboratively, and cross the borders of disciplines and specializations to try new ways of thinking.

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They become innovators – whether working alone or as part of an effective team.

"The characteristics I look for in innovators are a balance of creativity and discipline. This is hard to find in one person," says Innovators at Work panelist Annette Verschuren, chief executive officer of NRStor Inc. and former president of Home Depot Canada. "But teams that have a balance of creative/strategic thinking and execution capability are the best."

By clearly describing their products and services, understanding their markets, and carefully planning, Ms. Verschuren says, innovators can execute their ideas even in an ever-changing environment.

"It starts with putting yourself into the perspective of the people your business will serve," Mr. Levy says. "This goes with the practical reality of recognizing that ideas by themselves are cheap, and that execution is the challenge. Execution is a team sport, and it is about far more than just the technical side, it involves critical strategies in marketing, human resources and business planning."

Innovators at Work panelist Bill McFarland, CEO and senior partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers Canada, says innovation "is not about another program driven by 'champions' within an organization.

"It's about a culture that allows everyone in the organization to challenge the norm, take risks and do things differently," Mr. McFarland says.

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Peers, colleagues, clients, associates, friends and family can nominate the innovators in their life for the Innovators at Work contest – people who have ideas, and the ability to turn those ideas into something tangible, be it product, policy or business model. The Globe and Mail will profile those nominees weekly this spring and summer, and the panel of judges will announce 12 winners in September.

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