We are currently experiencing ever-faster and more transformative technological innovation. We have seen the astonishing developments of technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, genetic analysis, robotics, and many others, which are constantly reshaping businesses and entire industries.
One thing is clear, if businesses and individuals are not ready for this new world of ever-increasing innovation they risk being left behind.
There are few people better placed to understand the technology innovations and their implications than Consumer Technology Association CEO Gary Shapiro. I had the chance to talk to Shapiro about his new book following this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) – the world’s biggest technology show, which, as head of the CTA, he has hosted for the past 30 years.
In his latest book ‘Ninja Future: Secrets To Success In The New World Of Innovation’ Shapiro urges business leaders to adopt the mentality of feudal Japan’s secretive and efficient ninja warriors.
As tempting as the prospect may be, this doesn’t mean learning to strike from the shadows, silently and lethally, to take out your competition with your sword and throwing stars.
No – rather the key is to learn to adapt to the unexpected and be prepared for every eventuality, Shapiro says.
Just as the ninja would often fight against overwhelming odds to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, ninja business is about living by the motto “innovate or die!”, Shapiro says. And those that can harness this mentality will be set to emerge as champions of the “ninja future.”
Ninja Futures follows on from another ninja-themed business book he’s written, and the theme comes from his own passion and experience for the oriental martial arts:
“The ninja concept comes from the fact I have a black belt in karate – the ninjas were ancient Japanese fighters who won against incredible odds … they were savvy and flexible, which are qualities you need to have to be an innovator…
“I tell people, you have to plan and prepare, and know that once you’re in the battlefield, anything can change.
“It’s exactly the same in the business world, especially with the speed that new technology is moving today.”
While in reality ninjas may often have acted alone, as solitary assassins, in business this probably won’t work – so Shapiro’s first piece of advice for me when I ask him for tips on ninja business is that you need to build a kick-ass team.
“You need to know your strengths and weaknesses and bring onboard others who complement your weaknesses.
“You’re going to need to be collaborative and team-oriented, and you have to get to trust your teammates.”
Of course, this requires a certain level of emotional intelligence, in order to analyse your own personality and assess your own strengths and weaknesses. Breaking down the “ego barrier” that tries to convince us we are supermen (in spite of all the evidence to the contrary we’ve acquired over our lifetimes) and always know the right thing to do ourselves, is an added barrier that a business ninja must overcome.
Curiosity is another ninja trait, Shapiro tells me. Ninjas (and at this point I am starting to think Shapiro’s metaphorical business ninjas may function a little differently to historical ninjas) are always asking questions and aren’t afraid of looking stupid by doing so.
“As kids, we’re naturally curious, and maybe we lose that on the way to adulthood – but my observation is that it’s something you can foster … in my experience the most successful people are the most curious.
“They ask a tremendous amount of questions, and that’s not a difficult skill to learn really. Learn not to just ask ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions – you ask ‘why’ or ‘how.’ Even if it’s just at a party, learn to go and talk to the person standing on their own and ask them something about themselves. People are often very grateful for that!”
Shapiro says he is often surprised by the lack of curiosity and appetite for exploration in professional settings, such as during presentations when there is an opportunity to ask questions of an expert speaker. In short, his advice boils down to making sure your response to the prompt “Any questions?” is anything but silence!
“If you ask a stupid question you might feel like a fool for 20 minutes, but if you don’t ask, you’re a fool for a lifetime”, he says.
Equally important, and another business ninja characteristic, is the ability to act with compassion.
“If you only care about results, then you’re not going to be motivating people at all, ” Shapiro tells me.
“You have to show the human side of yourself and understand that people have families, obligations, kids … you work with them and give people a break when it’s time to give them a break.
“That’s compassion … it’s a matter of being human and recognising that people are not numbers or cogs.”
The last ninja lesson that Shapiro chooses to pass on to me during our conversation is the importance of learning to forge partnerships and build relationships.
“One skill that’s increasingly important to have within a company is the ability to get to know smaller companies – to go outside your own industry vertical and connect to people or companies within other verticals … you can learn to put them together to form something that will make your own product or service different, or more innovative.”
The importance of this relationship building is becoming increasingly apparent within the dynamics on display at events like CES, where start-ups mingle and network with c-level executives of multinationals.
“Increasingly big companies are coming not just to invest – but to learn … they want to partner or become the first customer, or to nurture and mentor.
“Starting something new in a big company is a big challenge, it’s difficult to get through the approval process, and to change and be flexible … and it’s difficult not to waste a lot of money on bad ideas.”
These aren’t problems faced by start-ups that move in an agile manner (again, like ninjas). This means bigger companies are increasingly coming to value smaller start-ups as fountains of innovation which can often be highly cost-effective.
Ninja Futures: Secrets to Success in a New World of Innovation by Gary Shapiro is available now.