So an elephant and a giraffe are at the watering hole and they see a turtle basking in the sun. The elephant walks over and kicks the turtle as hard as he can. "What'd you do that for?" asks the surprised giraffe. The elephant says, "That turtle bit my trunk 50 years ago." "Wow!" says the giraffe, "You have a great memory." "Yes," says the elephant, "I have ... Turtle Recall."
As any good joke writer knows (and please, I'm not saying that was a good joke), humor is the result of combining two incongruent ideas. In this case, it's the idea of talking jungle animals making references to an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie. The same thing is true in business today: innovative ideas come from combining concepts from different fields. And those kinds of transformative, game-changing innovations are what power the kind of high-growth start-ups that create jobs in our economy. In fact, over the last 25 years, high growth companies have created all net new jobs. [Slideshow: The 10 Best Cities to Find a Job]
In their new book, The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton Christensen interview 5,000 entrepreneurs worldwide and discover that "disruptive innovators" have five personality traits in common. First, they are relentlessly curious individuals who ask a lot of questions; they are more observant than most; they enjoy experimenting and trying new things; and they network with others not to find their next job, but to learn about the next new idea. Most of all, they are "associative"—meaning they have an ability to take ideas from past experiences, previous work or other industries and create new mash-ups. An example would be the scientist at 3M who, rather than throwing out a weak glue that wouldn't stick to anything but paper, decided to put it on the back of notepads and invented the Post-It note. (By the way, Post-It notes are now at $1 billion in annual sales globally.)
The authors found that overarching these five skills—which, they point out, can be learned and practiced by just about everyone— is one key ingredient. Disruptive innovators have courage. Almost anyone can think of a new idea for making a good product or service even better. But it takes guts to start a business, and it takes guts to hire people. [Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on the economy.]
With Friday's abysmal jobs numbers—the United States added no new jobs at all in August—the American people need a shot of courage. If we can create a culture that allows more people to successfully open new businesses and create high-growth start-ups—and put policies in place that will help them succeed in the long run—that courage will become contagious. More than half of Fortune 500 companies were founded during a recession or a bull market, according to a recent study by the Kauffman Foundation. It can be done. Let's hear more from our leaders in Washington about Americans' can-do spirit in tough times, and less fighting about whose fault this all is. People are hungry for some positive leadership, and we're not getting it. While that's an innovative idea that came from an existing company, there are plenty more that come from high growth start-ups.