Ninja Management

Kacy Catanzaro is the first woman to qualify for the American Ninja Warrior Finals. Her qualifying run in Dallas is not merely an athletic marvel, but also demonstrates a useful set of skills and practices for anyone tackling large and complex tasks.

Consider the structure of the course: a set of challenges, each one generally more difficult than the one before it. And when each challenge is completed, you move on to the next one. Note that the course isn’t a single challenge (although many other competitors approached it as a single challenge), and it is a lot like management – especially incident-based management. We often work on an urgent project, get it complete, and then move on to the next project. Or worse – the project extends for a long time, and we *don’t* treat it as a series of challenges. Sometimes, we use similar skills, competencies, and people, and wear them out. (Go watch some other competitors, and see how often their runs come to an end because of certain overused muscle groups giving out.)

Let’s consider Kacy’s approach. After each challenge, she undergoes some subset of the following ritual: celebration, gratitude, recovery, and preparation.


It’s important when we finish some task to celebrate. To acknowledge that we just did a hard thing, and defeated it. This gives us mental closure (“I totally beat that!”), as well as builds up our energy level (“I beat this hard thing, the next hard thing can’t be that bad”). It gives us the mindset of winners (“I get things done”) instead of the oppressed (“I have a never-ending set of challenges”). You can see Kacy celebrate after clearing each challenge – even just a little fist-pump acknowledges her success at the previous challenge and gets her ready to face the next one.


Even when we complete a project “on our own,” we often receive a lot of help that can be easy to overlook – people helped train us, took work off our plate, cheered us on. And when we don’t do the work on our own – when many people contributed to an accomplishment – we should express our gratitude. We should remind them that their work is valued, and that when they do work on our behalf, we appreciate it. There is a shortage of gratitude in the world; recipients of gratitude will react strongly and positively to the feedback. You see Kacy thanking the crowd and her boyfriend for their support after many of the challenges.


Challenges are *hard*; if they were easy, we’d call them cakewalks. We use (and abuse) the resources at our disposal – our bodies, our coworkers, our families, and our systems. After taking advantage of these things, we need to acknowledge the damage, and take even small steps to repair the damage. That might be taking a day off, taking action to reconnect with people we’ve ignored, taking care of ongoing maintenance; or merely relaxing for a while. Kacy is focused on finishing, and she takes the time to let overtaxed muscles rest and recover before asking more of them.


After finishing a challenge, we will often face another challenge. It’s not often the same challenge, even if it looks a bit similar. Or it may look wildly different, but be addressable with strikingly similar strategies. Either way, we need to take the time to think through how we’re going tackle this challenge, and then go execute. Watch how Kacy plans her approach to the next challenge before she tackles it, rather than jumping into it blindly.

Life will present us with many sequences of challenges, some masked as single large challenges, others clearly separated. Taking the time to recharge ourselves and our fellow participants will increase not only our effectiveness at any given task, but also our ability to continue to efficiently operate over time. These four rituals are an easy rubric to apply in almost any situation, and, like Kacy, they can enable us to overcome the obstacles in our path.