Bob Morris Interview: Gary Shapiro on the Unique Power of the Ninja Mindset
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)™, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,200 consumer technology companies and which owns and produces CES® – The Global Stage for Innovation. Shapiro directs a staff of about 200 employees and thousands of industry volunteers, leading his organization’s promotion of innovation as a national policy to spur the economy, create jobs and cut the deficit. CTA advocates for a lower deficit, skilled immigration, free trade, and policies that support innovative new business models. CTA does not seek government funding for industry. Shapiro authored CTA’s New York Times best-sellers, Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses(HarperCollins, 2013) and The Comeback: How Innovation will Restore the American Dream(Beaufort, 2011). His latest book, Ninja Future: Secrets to Success in the New World of Innovation(HarperCollins, 2018), was released December 31, 2018. Through these books and television appearances, and as a columnist whose more than 1,000 opinion pieces have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, Shapiro has helped direct policymakers and business leaders on the importance of innovation in the U.S. economy. He is considered an “influencer” on LinkedIn and has more than 280,000 followers.
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Before discussing the two Ninja books, a few general questions. First, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.
I wouldn’t call this an epiphany per se, but one transformative moment of my career was being fired. I was a summer camp counselor and had a beer on my day off. But instead of discarding the remaining cans offsite, I brought them back on to camp property – exactly what I had been told not to do. I was fired the very next day.
My dad came and picked me up. He didn’t say a word of reproach and gave me the freedom to express my frustration and shame. His compassion was transformative, and drives my own approach to HR today. Every termination at our organization has to be run by me. I insist we be humane and let them go as graciously as possible. I know what it feels like to have been fired, and I want, as much as possible, to give anyone in the same situation a chance to experience the same kind of compassion and care my dad extended to me.
What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?
I wish I had realized then that people are more important than results. If you care about your people, the results will follow.
I also think we need to chill. Not every decision is major. It is important to be decisive. When we’re young, we so often feel as though every decision we make will follow us around forever – but that’s rarely the case. One of my first full-time jobs was at a big law firm, where I was working weekends and late into the evenings. I wasn’t a fan of the atmosphere and was considering jumping ship.
But one partner urged me to stick around. If you put in a few years at a big firm, he pointed out, you can do pretty much anything. So, I stuck with my decision – and it ultimately led me to what is now CTA, where I started working as an in-house lawyer.
Moral of the story? Go ahead and make decisions. Contrast choices based on facts and gut. Don’t agonize over every decision. Consider not only the worst case scenario but the likelihood of every scenario. Few choices in life are totally irrevocable even if you feel as though you’ve made a “wrong” choice; chances are, you’ll wind up drawing from those experiences in the future.
Here are a couple of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:
“Learn from the people Plan with the people Begin with what they have Build on what they know Of the best leaders When the task is accomplished The people will remark ‘We have done it ourselves.’”
This is great. Leaders lead by motivating and people are most motivated when they are part of a decision and will share pride in a successful outcome. The best leaders do not have to prove that they are the smartest people in the room. They need core motivating principles, the willingness to listen and the ability to inspire others to try their hardest. Starting with the people – their needs, their interests, their knowledge and desires – is a strategy that sets you up for success.
Next, from Jack Dempsey: “Champions get up when they can’t.”
Moxie. Drive. Passion. Determination. Stick-to-itiveness. Resilience. Whatever you call it — it is the extra effort and creativity which separates average and amazing people. Ninjas are those who use every possible option to get a good result. If they hit a brick wall, they smash it, jump over it or become invisible and go through it. Ninjas persevere. They create new options, formulate alliances and never give up. They are the employees who excel, who understand that simply reporting that things cannot be done is not a path to promotion. They don’t distort reality. That leads to unethical behavior. But they always try new ways, and failure is just one more step before success.
Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?
Change is difficult. A leader leads by setting an example. If you can change yourself and what you do, others will see it. If you are open to new ideas as to trying and even failing and learning from that failure, others will emulate you. I’ve been fortunate to lead an industry defined by change. Innovation and technology are always making lives better and that allows most of our companies to have a culture of change. However, every company, including ours, has one big hit and the natural tendency is to protect the cash cow and underinvest in and under prioritize new ventures. Self-awareness is the first step to changing behavior.
What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?
Respect for individuals. Diversity. A culture rewarding creativity and new ideas. A belief in teams. Mentoring. Praise in public. Encouraging the sharing of mistakes and what was learned from them (starting with the CEO). A shared higher mission. People who respect and like each other. Investment of time and money in skills development. A balanced environment encouraging a focus on health, family and diverse outside interests.
The best CEOs know that they’re not the only ones with good ideas and seek input from all different kinds of people and sources. Mike McGuire of Grant Thornton is a great example of this: He’s implemented a software platform that allows all employees to weigh in on how to serve clients better or run things more efficiently. Although the company is nearly a century old, it’s unlocking new ways to serve clients every day.
Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?
According to a 2017 survey of Fortune 500 CEOs, seven in ten considered their company a tech company, and 81 percent said AI and machine learning are important or very important to their company’s future. CEOs will need to learn the ropes of the new technologies that are affecting their industries if they haven’t already. They should understand how technology changes customers’ wants and needs, and what a company needs to do to compete. A great CEO anticipates changes, adapts to change, and takes the steps necessary to capitalize on it.
CEOs are also dealing with a changing business environment including an economic slowdown, broken governments and culture shifting away from the concept that companies serve only shareholders. Leaders must stop only asking what is legal and start asking what is right. Firms must show their value to society or risk government and citizen retribution. They should also be standing up to problems rather than awaiting inevitable government regulation.
Now please shift your attention to Ninja Innovation. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, why did you decide to write it?
It is the first book in the Ninja series – though when writing it I didn’t realize it would be a series – but it wasn’t my first book. In my first book, The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream, I got into how innovation was the solution to many of the problems facing America. So many of the same principles that I delved into in that book come up again and again when I interact with some of the most notable innovators on the globe, and I wanted to put to paper the themes that I was seeing in the hopes that it would inspire would-be entrepreneurs and industry leaders to cultivate the traits that I believe characterize leaders with sticking power.
What are the defining characteristics of the Ninja mindset?
Years ago, my sons convinced our family to take tae kwon do classes together. As I trained, I connected the dots on how to apply the mindset of the ninja to the work of today’s innovators – the companies that line the CES show floor and represent CTA’s diverse member base.
The ninja relies on surprise, strategy and adaptability to surpass the status quo, rise above challenges and do the unexpected to succeed.Ninja innovators take risks, think outside the box and set goals that seem insurmountable. They are resilient and don’t accept failure — they learn from it. They develop creative solutions to problems in medicine, science, business, government, education, the arts and communication. They are using technology in unexpected ways to achieve these solutions. Yesterday’s ninja innovators brought us things like the printing press, the telegraph, the radio, the television, cameras and computers. Then came smartphones, texts, audiobooks, video calls, social media and apps. Imagine explaining Facebook to someone 50 years ago; they couldn’t have fathomed it. So, we can imagine that 50 years from now, people with a ninja mindset will have created things we can’t even dream about.
What are the major differences between how samurai and ninjas compete?
Samurai were military nobility who followed a strict code of combat while ninjas fought in unconventional ways. They had more tricks up their sleeves and thought more about original strategy – just like ninja innovators do!
In your opinion, what is the best example of ninja innovation?
I don’t think there’s any one best example. But I can give you one example that has resonated with me and I think a lot of people can relate to. At CES 2017, I met Robbie Cabral, an immigrant to the United States with an innovative security solution. Robbie was born and raised in the Dominican Republic and he had founded a startup, BenjiLock, a fingerprint-enabled gym locker lock that can be used just about anywhere. He invented it when he was out of work, depressed because he felt he wasn’t providing as a father, and was going to the gym just to keep himself motivated.
At CES that year, BenjiLock won an Innovation Award. After the show, he got involved with the work we do at CTA. We watched him win funding on Shark Tank, backed by Kevin O’Leary. I think Robbie’s story is important because it’s about a man who really pulled himself out of a dark place and had the drive and ninja mindset to turn a great idea into a killer business. Not all good ideas go somewhere – you have to be a ninja innovator to make that happen. And a lot of first-generation immigrants are ninja innovators. They account for 30 percent of all new U.S. entrepreneurs.
You assert, “Innovate or die.” How so?
I have been asserting this for decades. Change is happening faster and faster and too many leaders look at the world as it is today and assume it will stay that way. They create businesses and assume that their competitors are not looking at the same data and creating some more businesses. They ignore new business models that will compete with them. They don’t adapt quickly. They don’t change course.
We need to be constantly adapting and changing as we get new information. Ninjas plan for battle but as soon as they hit the battlefield their plans change and they do what they must to not only survive but succeed. Smaller companies compete successfully with bigger ones because they don’t waste time and resources making business plans and then sticking to them despite a rapidly changing environment.
When concluding my review for Amazon US, UK, and Canada, I quote Hillel the Elder: “If not now, when? If not you, who?” To what extent (if any) is this a ninja point of view? Please explain.
The ninja point of view is a fundamentally democratic one. It’s the belief that we should have a free, open society so that anyone with an idea and the boldness to see it through has the opportunity to do so.
That way of thinking is increasingly under threat. Not only do we face increasingly intense international competition in innovation and technology, but our domestic politics are growing increasingly unstable. Rather than working across parties and sectors to create the solutions that will power our future, we waste crucial time in partisan blame-shifting.
The paradigm shift must start with you and me. If we want to see the values of freedom, innovation and creativity flourish in the years to come, we need to put aside partisan pettiness and come together. Openness to others, a willingness to listen and to learn, has to start in our conversations, in our social media feeds and in our offices and homes. Only then can we fully realize the promise and potential of the ninja future.
Now please shift your attention to Ninja Future. To what extent is it a sequel to Ninja Innovation? Please explain.
Ninja Innovation focused on what I learned from successful businesspeople and offers a framework for others to approach innovation in their lives and the lives of their businesses. Ninja Future deals with the future of technology – things like AI, robots, health care, AR/VR, blockchain and self-driving technology. I write about how companies and leaders need to move fast, spot trends and learn how to deal with rapid changes and disruptions – whether it’s people in government, CEOs, entrepreneurs or really anyone interested in the changing landscape of technology.
To what extent does it plow new ground when taking what you characterize as a “horizontal” approach? Please explain.
Think of it this way: Ten years ago, I’d buy my home security system from one company, my computer from another company, my central heating system from another, my fridge from another and my lamp from another. Nowadays, I might buy all those items and services from different companies, but virtually all of them will have a tech component. They’ll connect to the internet, to Alexa, Google Home or Siri, or to my phone.
The result is a comprehensive tech ecosystem – a horizontal, all-encompassing network that brings together a variety of products and services. Instead of vertical silos – a security industry, an appliance manufacturing industry, an energy industry – all of these various products and industries are being tied into a single, tech-powered system. It’s a big shift, and it’ll change how we travel, how we govern, how we work and, in my case, how we write.
In Future Shock (1984), Alvin Toffler offers this prediction: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” What do you think?
He and his co-author wife (who just passed) were right. As I said earlier, resilience – being able to react quickly to changing circumstances and develop timely solutions – is the watchword of the future. The pace of innovation is increasing and is getting faster. The future belongs to the flexible, ethical ninjas. Those, “that’s odd,” moments lead to more discoveries – this means leaders can’t remain complacent in what they know; they must be open to new perspectives and be willing to rebuild the foundations of their businesse
Here’s one of the many observations you make that caught my eye: “The most advanced level of big data analytics involves not only predicting the probability of future outcomes, but also automatically taking action based upon those predictions. Predictive analytics requires a feedback loop in order to continuously refine its predictive prowess.” For those who have not as yet read either book, what’s your key point in this passage?
This means computers will soon be better than humans in discovering causation. This will keep us safer, healthier, better fed and more efficiently educated. We will increasingly be able to predict what will happen whether it be in food production, transportation or climate.
This is a fundamental change for mankind. It will create new opportunities. It will empower almost everyone. It will reduce human suffering. It will transform some jobs and eliminate most of the most dangerous jobs. It will create new jobs, especially those requiring a human touch, empathy and those helping our aging population.
You suggest that tech silos are shifting to tech landscapes. In your opinion, what are the most significant implications and potential consequences of what I view as a paradigm shift?
The path to success in most companies used to be to have a skill and keep getting promoted, maybe being transferred around the world and then going into the system. That is changed. Today, those becoming leaders of those with human skills come across cultural ability and knowledge in many different domains outside one vertical.
Well, specialist knowledge is important; verticals are too confining today, given how interconnected we are. For example, crafting effective regulation is now more challenging. Take self-driving vehicles. Because they’re motor vehicles, they’re under the purview of the Department of Transportation. But they’ll need to connect to the internet, which is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.
So, who’s in charge of making sure if these vehicles are ready for the roads, or if the roads are ready for our vehicles? It can’t be both – otherwise it will only delay the implementation of this life-saving technology. I’d urge our federal leaders to begin to think about how they can communicate effectively and move quickly so our siloed, departmentalized system doesn’t slow down the digital landscape of the future.
In your opinion, which of the material you provide in the two Ninja books will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.
I think being resilient in the face of failure is important. You have to think of failure as a learning opportunity and ask, “What did I learn from this?” Success teaches you some things, but I think failure actually teaches you more. And when you become successful, it helps you navigate that world better. I try to push through the natural emotions of denial, excuses, shame and anger to see the upside of every failure.
To C-level executives? Please explain.
I would tell executives to develop a mindset that embraces change. One way to do this is to abandon the traditional corporate strategic plan. My experience has taught me that these plans are limiting and don’t help leaders react to dynamic marketplaces. Business leaders tied to a strategic plan are more inclined to double down on losing strategies and tactics instead of pivoting when circumstances change. And sometimes they miss new opportunities they couldn’t have envisioned when creating their strategic plan.
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Gary cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
Editor's note: This article was written by Robert Morris and has been rerun with his permission.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.