Entrepreneurial Spirit / March 22, 2013

Be Ninja Innovators, Revive the Economy: Top Strategist to Smith Students

Ninja innovation can foster individual and company success, and ultimately, a robust national economy.

This message was central to the latest CEO at Smith lecture, given March 13 by Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) which produces the yearly International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

“Ninja innovators are risk-takers,” Shapiro told Smith students who filled the Frank Auditorium. "But taking risks does not mean acting recklessly," he added. Shapiro’s perspective comes from helping lead the analog-to-digital television transition and testifying before Congress 20-plus times on technology and business issues including HDTV, the Internet, intellectual property and innovation policy.

He referred to the terminology's origin: The stealth ninja warriors in Japan “were small and always undermanned against the adversary, but consistently victorious because they fought outside the box, communicated well, built great teams and were quick and fast in responding to the situation.”

Adopt this disciplined mindset and focus on solving – not creating – problems for your supervisor or your company.” The implications are enormous, said Shapiro, author of recent New York Times best-sellers "Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses" and "The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream."

Creative Destruction and Public Policy Challenges

A major adversary for ninja innovation is a government-policy structure fixated on raising taxes or cutting spending as answers to a “terrible economy," said Shapiro. A third, seemingly underappreciated policy route, he added, is market innovation – the most viable answer to grow the economy and yield higher tax revenue to support needed spending. Policymakers can better-embrace the wisdom that growth channels through innovation from "doing something different that people will pay for."

Such savvy and creative problem-solving is ingrained in U.S. culture – "an immigrant culture – more heterogeneous than in any other country," he said. “This brings different views, ideas and allows a hallway of thinking that doesn't exist elsewhere,” and the U.S. government traditionally has been “favorable to new business models."

Moreover, recent policy developments indicate the United States remains a viable battlefield for ninja innovators, Shapiro said. Swift, forceful public feedback to Washington, D.C. city council members thwarted a shutdown of Uber, an app-based car service targeting the professional class as an alternative to the traditional taxi service. Separately a groundswell of public anger prompted Congress to abandon the recently proposed Stop Online Piracy and Protect IP acts to heavily regulate and effectively diminish the open Internet and innovation.

Policymakers, he added, are further challenged to pave the way for emerging market innovations including:

  • 3D printers (digitally producing three-dimensional objects of any shape): “Low-end models used in the home can produce a lost button or spare part (for virtually any device).” But at a more advanced level, it gets into bio-printing – “creating organs and skin, and even your dinner… It’s huge – a potential game-changer.”
  • Driverless (robotic) cars: “At least three companies have demonstrated these are already feasible.” A prime example of creative destruction to existing companies and industries, this innovation stands to dislocate driving professionals like truckers and cab drivers, as well as impact insurance companies. “There's a whole world of the economy built around people getting hurt” and it’s on the verge of changing.

"It's an absolute certainty (a broadening market for the driverless car) will occur” even though the policy implications “make for a rocky road to get there,” he said.

But U.S. culture encourages “innovation through perseverance,” he reiterated. "Think about your personal lives and some of the worst things that have happened to you. Always ask yourself: ‘What did I learn from that? How do I go forward?’ Everything painful can be a good learning experience."

Shapiro ultimately challenged his Smith student audience to seize the opportunity within a conducive U.S.-cultural framework to close the gap between policymakers and market innovators. A generation of leaders has “left your generation in a horrible financial predicament – do something about it, don’t remain quiet.”

“The bottom line is if you hit a brick wall, you figure out how break through or go around, get under it, or parachute in,” he said. “You figure out the solution, even if you have to go through some third dimension or parallel universe. There’s never a yes or no. There’s always a third track – a solution.”

Shapiro’s Ninja-Entrepreneur Fundamentals

  • Startups are prime market innovators. Ninja-entrepreneurs have an advantage over large companies because such companies “have higher cost structures and can’t make decisions quickly -- unless they’re led by an extraordinary CEO like Steve Jobs.”
  • “If you’re creating a team, avoid building a team from individuals who think like you and agree with you. When you have your team, assess everyone’s weakness – everyone has a weakness – and work around those weaknesses. You want people who are different and will push back if they disagree with you.”
  • Avoid groupthink, but engage in brainstorming. “MBA classes that focus on group dynamics or group projects really are valuable in the real world.”
  • Collaboration between competitors also can effect innovation (such successes have emerged from the CES). Strategic partnerships, for example, have carried the rise of the smartphone industry.

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty master's, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

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