2 Easy Ways to Get MUCH More From Your Employees

Last Updated Aug 17, 2010 6:05 PM EDT

Have you ever thrown money at a problem? It always seems like a good idea at the time, and it's easy to do, but usually a terrible mistake. We almost made this error twice in the last few weeks but, fortunately, we came to our senses before spending needlessly.

Before I explain how we solved the problems, here's what we were up against in each case:

Problem #1: At our quarterly planning meeting where representatives from each department come together to prioritize short-term objectives, everyone came up with the same conclusion: We didn't have enough resources to accomplish all of our agreed-upon goals. My CIO said we'd need two full-time contractors to make it happen. He constantly reminds us of what he calls the "Triple Threat" (scope, time, and money). You usually can't have all three, and in this case something definitely had to give.

Problem #2: A few weeks ago, a confluence of factors doubled the number of in-bound calls to our customer service call center. We were ill-equipped to handle those calls, so customers were understandably upset with extraordinarily long hold times. My VP of sales asked me if he could hire more people as it appeared the number of calls was not going to subside, and the data he analyzed seemed to mandate it.

Both situations seemed to require more money. Or did they?

As the CEO, I believe two of my major roles are to (a) make people the best they can be, and (b) create a culture of effective execution. The question was whether I could do both in these situations. Would more money really solve the problems and improve the quality of our team, or were we not being creative enough with the resources we already had?

I took a chance and decided it was the latter. In the first scenario, I told the planning group that I would not authorize more contractors. Period. This was somewhat of a shock because we had all agreed on a list of priorities and must-accomplish goals. I asked the group to look at the list again and identify what they could not live without. Our senior programmer told our CMO that if we postponed one of the bigger, less critical projects, it would free up enough time to obviate the need for the extra programmers. Enough said. Case solved.

In the second scenario, I took the same tactic. "Figure it out," I said. And that's what they did. Our VP of sales had originally said he and his direct reports "had thought of everything." But this time, he brought in more people -- some of whom had never been asked for their ideas -- to brainstorm a solution. Within two hours they came up with 11 ideas, implemented seven by the end of the day, and the other four by the end of the week. Not one more person was needed.

Here's what I learned from the experience, which you can apply to your own business:

1. Necessity is the mother of profit. If you force employees to think harder, they normally will. Setting limits and asking penetrating questions encourages people to think through all of their decisions and come up with work-arounds that will both help the company and themselves. It's a classic leadership development lesson I learned in Larry Bossidy's and Ram Charan's best-selling book Execution.

2. With diversity comes more perspective. Involving more people in the process helps bring a fresh way of thinking. It also puts pressure on those who've already given the matter a lot of thought. Even if the new people don't have the answer, they normally say things that catalyze ideas in others.

Before throwing money at a problem, throw the question right back at a larger, more diverse set of people. Pushing your staff to think more critically has two advantages: You'll get a more creative solution out of them, and they'll improve their problem-solving skills. Everyone becomes better that way.

Have a good story about how your team solves problems in creative ways? Tell me in the comments.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr, by Wendy Piersall)

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    Jay Steinfeld is the founder and CEO of Blinds.com, the industry leader in online window blinds sales. He is an Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year. His company was named Best Place to Work in Houston, won the American Marketing Association's Marketer of the Year, and Steinfeld was named by the Houston Chronicle as Houston's top CEO in the under-150 employee category for the last 2 years.