"The world that we live in today is unrecognizable to that of just twenty years ago...nothing is ever static...we can never tell where we'll be in five years." I wrote these words in my 2013 book, Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses. Since then, the world has changed all over again, in some ways I predicted back then and in other ways few of us could have imagined. Much of the credit for this goes to ninja innovators.
I coined the phrase ninja innovation to describe the people and organizations that demonstrated the attributes of ancient ninjas—Japanese warriors who survived battles against extraordinary odds. Using stealth and surprise, they triumphed over adversaries, despite often being outgunned and outmanned by fierce competition or hostile conditions.
I have used the idea of the ninja as a standard for my children and employees since the television series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came on the scene in the mid-1980s. My sons watched the show religiously and begged my first wife and me to enroll them in karate classes. Eventually we relented and signed up for tae kwon do as a family.
The experience was humbling. Sometimes work required me to miss classes, so my kids often became my instructors. Over time, we developed the discipline, self-confidence, and respect required to earn our black belts. We also learned a way of thinking that relies on surprise, strategy, and adaptability. We learned to adjust our tactics, change course, ignore conventional wisdom, and find creative ways to solve intractable problems.
As I trained, it occurred to me that there were parallels to my professional life. As the head of Consumer Technology Association (CTA), I have the opportunity and privilege to see ninja innovators in action every day. For our member companies, success doesn't mean preserving the status quo, no matter how great that might be. It means reaching previously insurmountable heights. It means achieving seemingly impossible goals.
Part of my personal and business lexicon is challenging myself and others to "think like a ninja." Ninjas innovate. Ninjas do the unexpected—and in so doing, produce value. That value can be survival, a successful product launch, or agreement on a deal. It can mean greater revenue, lower costs, increased efficiency, better results, or happier customers. Often it means connecting the dots among different areas of knowledge. It can mean almost anything—but it always requires creative thinking.
At our Innovation House, CTA's home base on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., we display a phrase I often use: "Innovate or Die." These words are a mandate not just for businesses, but also for humanity. I passionately believe our survival—past, present, and future—is due to our unique ability to innovate. We are different from other species in our ability to cause our own destruction, but also in our ability to change course and ensure that we continue to thrive.
In some ways, the future looks a bit grim: We face major threats, now and in the not-too-distant future. Disease, nuclear weapons, climate change, debt, social upheaval, war, and natural disasters loom large. Successfully navigating these complexities will require all citizens and companies to become ninja innovators. Ninja innovators aren't limited to the tech industry, though of course my focus will be there. Ninja innovators can be found in schools, hospitals, stores, restaurants, theaters, private companies, and government agencies.
Amazon is a clear example. It is not so much inventing products but constantly reinventing itself. Led by CEO Jeff Bezos, the company morphed from an online bookstore to a multibillion-dollar global behemoth that sells, well, everything. Once the company dominated bookselling, its leadership shifted its focus to becoming the go-to online retailer for customers seeking convenience and speed of ordering and delivery. They developed their own e-readers and tablets to capitalize on the changing reading, watching, and listening preferences of consumers. They offered digital file storage, including photos, on their cloud service Amazon Drive.
The company launched Amazon Prime, a subscription service that gives members free shipping and access to digital content (music, videos, original programming). They established a publishing imprint and bought Audible—the largest audio book company. They introduced Amazon Echo, launched Amazon Fresh for grocery delivery. They bought a robotics company to automate and hone their fulfillment distribution processes to such an extent that customers can order and receive a product on the same day. And Amazon has now come full circle, in a way, by purchasing Whole Foods and building brick-and-mortar Amazon bookstores.
In 2017, Fast Company named Amazon "the world's most innovative company." And it's no wonder; Amazon "has continued to be nimble even as it has achieved enviable scale." Not only does Amazon anticipate changes in the marketplace and in consumer habits, it also drives them—which makes it a classic example of a ninja innovator.