I follow Bob Sutton on Twitter (@work_matters).  He is a Stanford University professor, author and expert on such topics as management, innovation, leadership, etc.  His recent article in Psychology Today called “How Great Bosses Think About it and Do it” caught my attention.  He and another Stanford colleague teach an executive program on innovation and over time, they have come up with 21 ideas of how great bosses lead innovation.  It’s a great read and I encourage all leaders to read it if they have a chance.

One of their 21 ideas hit a nerve because I remember how I struggled with it as I began to lead Millennials almost 8 years ago.  It’s the concept of failure vs. inaction. In the article the author suggests that we reward success and “intelligent” failure and penalize inaction.  As a Baby Boomer, failure has always been a dirty word.  We were always striving to win. Yet, if we let go of that constant need to win and acknowledge that sometimes failure has a lot to teach us and makes us better,  we open up the possibility for innovation to take place.

That is why I love observing Millennials.  To them failure is not the end of the world.  It merely is a way to get better at something.  I believe they are that way because of all the interactive games they have played.  To get to the next level of a video game and advance your skills, you fail and have to keep playing until you perfect your game enough to earn the right to get to the next level. 

They apply that concept at work.  Instead of beating themselves up for making a mistake, they want to know why they made it and how to get better so as not to make it again.  That is probably a good example of “intelligent failure”.  They don’t fail and make a mistake for lack of trying or disinterest but they don’t dwell on it either.  They look for solutions or approaches to prevent them from making the same mistake again and they move on. That increases creativity and that helps spark innovation. Why?  Because looking for solutions generates a lot of  great ideas while focusing on the failure does the opposite.

Now, if you don’t try something for fear of failure that is inaction and it surely is an innovation killer.  Nothing is gained by inaction, by staying in your comfort zone. As leaders we need to remember that as we face uncomfortable challenges in the 21st Century workplace.  Trying something new and possibly failing to reach your target is infinitely better than not doing anything at all and not moving forward.  By staying where you are you are really falling behind.

So what about you?  Would you penalize failure or inaction in your team?