Innovation Is an Art

By Gary Shapiro

During the 2013 International CES earlier this month, I overheard many conversations as business executives and media browsed the world’s latest technology and gadgetry. Amongst the “oohs” and “aahs,” one of the most common questions I overheard was, “Why didn’t I think of that?” No doubt, many have returned to their homes inspired to put their own innovative ideas into fruition. But with research showing that three out of four new startups fail, how can you ensure that your product will be a success?

The reason so many companies fail, especially in the consumer electronics space, is that most competitors are looking at the same markets, analyzing the same data, seeing the same trends, and coming up with the same answer. It sounds trite, but it is painfully true that it takes a special vision to spot opportunities, a rare courage to pursue them, and a uniquely skilled team to succeed.

While there is no foolproof formula for achievement, successful innovation – “ninja innovation,” as I call it – does follow a pattern. And while this kind of innovation is an art, not a science, 30 years working in the consumer electronics industry has shown me that flexibility, adaptation, and thinking on your feet are key.

To see what I mean, we can evaluate the qualities of Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and a true ninja innovator who was named Fortunes 2012 Businessperson of the Year. Jeff is regularly described as brilliant, not only because of his high intelligence, but also because he has led Amazon to so many breakthroughs and prospered even in tough times, such as the dot-com collapse in 2000. I think part of his secret is that he’s willing to challenge the status quo as well as shift his strategy when it’s required. He also has the temerity to take on the biggest players in his industry and win. Jeff wasn’t content to keep Amazon as a bookseller; he wanted to take on other industries as well. Not only does he get the basics right, but he adapts his strategy before each engagement, allowing him to be successful in his endeavors. 

Adapting your strategy is the lifeblood of ninja innovation. When it comes to developing and executing successful strategies, ninjas embrace the military adage that no strategy survives the very first contact with the enemy. Even the best strategy cannot fully anticipate what the competition will do, how rapidly they will do it, and how effective they will be. For your team to win after its first contact with the competition, it must be talented and nimble: talented enough to recognize quickly what parts of your strategy are working well, working poorly, or not working at all, and nimble enough to adjust effectively. And the more thoroughly you have already thought through strategic contingencies, the more quickly you can adjust with a response that the competition doesn’t expect or can’t defeat.

This is not always easy. Most people don’t react well to change and try to resist it, and the same is true for business. But industries – and markets – are constantly evolving, so people and companies have to adapt or suffer the consequences. And, obviously, those who correctly anticipate transformations and prepare themselves are likely to be better off than those who have to scramble to adapt to changes already upon them. In order to make your endeavors successful, ninja innovator hopefuls would do well to adopt strategic thinking and assess which ideas to pursue, which ideas should be abandoned, and which is the best way to implement those ideas.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and a New York Times best-selling author. His views are his own. Shapiro's latest book, Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses, launched this month. Connect with him on Twitter:@GaryShapiro

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