During my days as a business school professor, I taught an executive education class in marketing. One of my students was a senior engineer at a defense contractor and was seething when he walked into my class. It turned out that the requisition department in his company had turned down reimbursement for software he had ordered. It was only a few hundred dollars and he knew he would be able to get that rejection overturned, but he was so annoyed at the hassle that I could almost see smoke coming out of his ears.

Some context is needed. His company had won a major competitive award for a big chunk of the design for the next generation fighter plane. I'm talking several billion dollars here. He was responsible for about a $200 million dollar chunk of this.

While working long hours to finish his bit for the proposal, he needed some specialized software in a hurry so he bought it using his personal credit card. He explained all this in his reimbursement request. And some presumably well-meaning but clueless clerk had rejected the request because it did not follow policy.

A Lesson in Fostering Innovation

This company loudly and constantly proclaimed that it was dedicated to innovation. So was adding layers of approval for a request a good way to foster innovation? There is a different way. Perhaps you should try it--even if it makes you feel queasy at first.

It is one of many tools used by Henry Stewart, founder and CEO of Happy--formerly Happy Computers--in London. Stewart has racked up a string of accolades. Management Today rated Happy as the best company for customer service in the United Kingdom. The Financial Times found it had the best work-life balance of any company in the United Kingdom. The Great Place to Work Institute rated Happy the best of any British company for promoting staff health and well-being.

I will be writing about many of the methods being used by Henry but here is one that gets at the issue my student had.

How to Manage Creative Thinking

When there is a problem, Stewart convenes a committee to look into the matter and make a recommendation. The size of the committee and the expertise of the members depend on the nature of the problem. Pretty standard management practice, right?

Then comes the kicker. Stewart pre-approves the solution that the committee comes up with. Its members don't have to get a further OK from him. They just have to go ahead and implement what they come up with.

Not having to review and supervise frees up a lot of his time. This is time he can use to play chess, for instance. (He is almost master strength though he does not play much of late.)

A Case Study: e-Learning

How does this work in practice? Well Happy wanted to get into e-learning but Stewart did not want to develop original material because that would be too expensive. He thought the way to go was to create a portal to integrate material created by others. He asked a team member to look into this and part of her charge was to find out the very best of the material that was "out there."

She did not consult with him and came back with a completely new approach to e-learning that involved creating new material. That work launched Happy's e-learning division that won--among many others--a £1 million contract with the National Health Service and a £500,000 contract with the Department of Work and Pensions.

Stewart freely admits that Happy would not have won either if his approach had been followed.

Could you manage decision-making like Stewart? Tell me why or why not in the comments section below.