Why private enterprise needs 'Ninja Innovation'

The Obama years have been hard on American business, big and small. When not being cast as greedy tax-dodgers who “didn’t build” their enterprises, business owners have had to battle an economic and political environment that is downright hostile: a desolate investment climate; the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world; a quadrupling of regulatory burdens; a punitive health care mandate; and a tort system that favors the frivolous.

Which is why it was such a delight to read “Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses” from Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). Let’s set aside the colorful title for a moment and call this book what it is really is: A celebration of American business. It’s clear that Shapiro, who has spent 30 years in the consumer electronics field, has an infectious passion for the art of business – how an idea can change the world.


Given Shapiro’s area of expertise, perhaps this isn’t surprising. The CEA head has no difficulty talking about consumer electronics as the “most dynamic industry on the planet,” whose companies have shaped our modern world.

It’s hard to argue with this proposition, even if what classifies as “consumer electronics” is rather expansive these days. It’s nevertheless refreshing to read a book in the Obama era that unabashedly applauds and honors the creativity, determination, and sheer joy of private enterprise.

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As for that curious title, the “ninja” part is Shapiro’s entertaining way of providing context to what otherwise might be construed (mistakenly) as a niche business topic. And as a black belt in tae kwon do, Shapiro makes a good defense of it.

The ninja, he writes, was “a highly disciplined, strategic, and passionate warrior.” He asks: “What better description is there for a successful person, enterprise, or organization in today’s world?” Part of the pleasure of reading “Ninja Innovation” is discovering all the ways Shapiro parallels the feudal Japanese warrior to modern-day business people, from entrepreneurs to seasoned CEOs. It’s a fun exercise and makes for a quick, enjoyable read.

In one comparison that worked particularly well, Shapiro attaches the ninja quality of achieving victory at any cost to IBM. While not nearly as flashy as a company like Apple, IBM’s resilience as a successful, innovative company is a testament to its ability to change with the times and to dominate the markets it enters.

“Despite a Titanic-like size that might make it difficult to alter course nimbly, IBM has successfully transformed itself from a mainframe company to a PC company to a consulting company to a company that beats chess and Jeopardy! champions just because it can,” writes Shapiro.

The usual suspects of business success certainly get their due respect: Apple, Microsoft, Intel, eBay, Facebook, and Twitter to name a few. But Shapiro also includes some surprising entities, from the relatively unknown -- Nottingham-Spirk and Monster Cable – to more mainstream companies, such as Ford Motor Company, that aren’t generally considered “cutting-edge.”

“Ninja Innovation” isn’t a “how-to” manual for business success. Rather, Shapiro identifies the bonds that connect one successful enterprise to another. That he does this through the lens of sword-wielding ninjas is a welcome change from the dry success manuals that litter the shelves. It’s also important in these times of anti-corporate rhetoric to be reminded and encouraged that success in business is something to be proud of.

By far the most enlightening parts of the book are the episodes in which Shapiro played a part. For instance, Shapiro recounts his experience as part of the national “strike force,” comprised of private and public entities, that developed the HDTV format. This decades-long effort required hundreds of creative minds, dozens of competitive companies, and several government agencies all pulling in the same direction to develop a format that is the standard for the rest of the world. Shapiro had a front-row seat throughout the process.

The last pages of the book are dedicated to CEA’s flagship endeavor, the International CES. When Shapiro assumed control of CEA, the trade show was losing attendees to the competition. Reading how Shapiro helped revive CES and turn it into the dominant trade show in the country – while using his “ninja-like tactics” – is a fine way to finish a book about success.

Some readers might see this as self-serving, which I think misses the point. Without a vibrant and must-see event to show off their wares many of today’s most successful businesses would never have had a chance. Shapiro is entirely justified in mentioning his – and CEA’s – contribution.

If there is a lesson in “Ninja Innovation” it is this: We all owe a great deal to the companies and individuals Shapiro celebrates. After all, their success is our success.