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Making the push Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2009

Robert Houghton saves most of his deep thinking about key issues at Redemtech Inc. for time spent on an airplane.

“You’re disconnected from e-mail, you don’t have your cell phone, you are sitting in a seat, and you can’t go anywhere,” Houghton says. “You can get an awful lot of thinking done.”

Using plane time for strategizing allows the firm’s founder and president to stay connected with his employees when he’s at the office and not worry about the interruptions in his day that inevitably occur. It also puts him in a better position to share with his 400 employees the responsibility for making decisions at the provider of technology change management services.

Smart Business spoke to Houghton about how to get your employees ready to make key decisions.

Q. How do you prioritize tasks?

Maintain a list of key priorities for the business. I use that to drive assignments that I give my staff, pursuing those things I’ve identified as important. For the strategy, the important but not urgent, you have to allocate time for it.

Give yourself space on your calendar to attend to those things. There will always be important and urgent things to deal with. That calendar will expand to fill the available time.

Keep a list of key priorities that is short enough to be something that we can accomplish and strategic enough so that if we are able to successfully accomplish a particular objective, it has a very material impact on the business.

It’s very dangerous to imagine you know everything. The folks working on the front lines are going to have a whole lot of ideas I wouldn’t come up with.

Q. How do you get the most out of your people?

You can’t go in acting like you know all the answers. If you do that, you’re going to foreclose collaboration. We want to push decisions down to the lowest possible level where the expertise and information exists to make a good decision.

Encourage people to have an opinion and believe they have some control over the job they are doing and the results the business is producing. If all decisions are made at a high level, naturally people are going to wait for the senior management level to make their pronouncements and say, ‘Let’s hope they are right.’

If we didn’t get better at decision-making, we’d gradually grow less nimble and less intelligent about the way we go about serving our customers. As you get bigger, you have to pull all these additional brains into the mix so the intelligence of the business scales with the head count.

Q. How does trust help your business?

There’s a quote, I think it was [U.S. Army Gen.] George C. Marshall, the author of the Marshall Plan, who said the only way you can make a person trustworthy is to trust them.

You make sure employees have the tools to make a good decision. Management’s job is to set expectations, define the outcome you are after and delegate the decision-making.

Formally make it part of the job. When we talk about assigning decision-making authority, we call that assigning the ‘D.’ Who has the decision-making authority?

It’s an explicit thing. People sit in meetings, they set objectives, they say, ‘Who has the D?’

That person will make the decision. It does a great job of involving as many people as possible in running the business. If we can bring those folks along as leaders, we’re way ahead of the game.

If a decision is made that we disagree with, it becomes a coaching opportunity. In some cases, decisions are made that we disagree with that produce good results. In that case, we stand informed, and that’s a very good thing.

Q. How do you deal with bad decisions?

We don’t punish people. I’ve said to my folks, ‘I’ll never be terribly unhappy with a decision that doesn’t turn out well if it’s a decision that was carefully made.’ I’ll be very unhappy with someone who doesn’t make a decision when one is needed.

Be willing to accept some mistakes and use those as opportunities for coaching. People understand they are held accountable for outcomes. But if they are acting in good faith in the best interest of the business with the right facts and due diligence involved, even if things don’t turn out as hoped, they aren’t reluctant to stick their necks out and make a decision.

Making a decision is always better, even if it’s the wrong decision, if you are dealing with a good decision-making framework. No one has ever lost their job at Redemtech from making a bad decision. People lose their jobs for not taking ownership and for not taking initiative when that’s required.

Someone that in good faith makes a decision that does-n’t turn out well is coached and will have another opportunity to make a decision in the future that we hope will turn out better.

HOW TO REACH: Redemtech Inc., (614) 850-3366 or www.redemtech.com