Supporting the Stresses and Strains of Innovation

Ignore your foundation at your peril.  Without a proper base your highest hopes, years of work, and millions of dollars can be reduced to a cloud of dirt and debris so fast you won’t know what happened.

What is a foundation for innovation? Let’s turn to an engineering nightmare to learn exactly why a solid foundation is so important and then identify the forces a good foundation counters. I will show you similar pressures that contribute to the instabilities, load, and strain endemic to innovation and what you can do to address them and avoid your own catastrophe.

December 2009, the 31-story “dream of a lifetime”” which promised “”the finest quality built tower” on South Padre Island, Texas, collapsed into a mass of dust and rubble. A faulty foundation turned  the investors’ dream into $65 million of recyclable waste.

After 87% of the investors’ $75 million had been spent cracks appeared in columns supporting the parking garage. Excavation showed that the tower’s core had sunk fourteen to sixteen inches while the attached garage had gone down less than half that distance. The Ocean Tower condos of South Padre Island went into the history books as one of the tallest reinforced concrete structures ever intentionally imploded.

The main purpose of a good foundation is to safely transfer the load of a structure through the soft, inadequate, upper layer of topsoil down into the stronger, secure subsoil below… to provide exactly the support the Ocean Towers lacked.

A building foundation creates a platform so the construction can take the pressures created by three critical forces:

1. The weight and shape of the building itself.

2. The moving mass of people and objects as they go in and out.

3. External forces like wind, snow, and earthquakes.

For innovation efforts to succeed you need a foundation that can handle a similar set of forces:

1. Day-to-day operations and fire-fighting

2. Innovation’s movement and pressures

3. Changing market forces: sometimes rapid, always unpredictable

Day-to-day operations and fire-fighting

The primary function of your organization is taking care of business. Operations is job 1. And a regular part of operations is handling the unexpected, putting out fires. These two must go on unimpeded.

A solid foundation ensures that the innovation work, which demands time, attention, and energy from many of the same people who are responsible for operations, will never come into conflict with operations and fire-fighting.

Innovation’s movement and pressures

Although necessary to sustainable growth and profit, innovation is by definition at odds with business-as-usual. When it courses through your organization it demands attention and creates counter forces that push and pull on the status quo. Count on it.

The successful innovation organization anticipates this motion and its corresponding energy draw and prepares for it. If it does not, resistance emerges from a thousand corners and quashes the value innovation is designed to generate before it even gets started.

Changing market forces: sometimes rapid, always unpredictable

There is great business in speculation and risk management, but no one owns a crystal ball. Your foundation must provide you with the flexibility to take a variety of external stresses while simultaneously providing the stability required to deliver on today’s work.  Workers must operate with the confidence required to keep their mind on getting their jobs done even as new challenges and opportunities transform the nature of your business.

Your foundation should be customized to accommodate the specialized risks of your field just as house foundations in earthquake-ridden locales are specially fitted with hold down brackets, wall bracing, and bolts designed to accommodate the stresses of tremors and seismic activity.

To ensure that your organization grows the way it can and should, put a foundation in place to support  innovation – that’s what it takes to have a happier ending than the Ocean Towers!

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Seth KahanSeth Kahan is a Change Leadership specialist. He has consulted with CEOs and executives in over 50 world-class organizations that include Shell, World Bank, Marriott, Prudential, Project Management Institute, and NASA. His book, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out, is a Washington Post bestseller. Visit for a free excerpt.

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One Response to Supporting the Stresses and Strains of Innovation

  1. Pingback: Articles of Interest 6/15/12 « National Creativity Network

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