It's the impossible catch-22 situation faced by large and small businesses alike who are resource-constrained. Do you invest in personnel or technology? What happens when the reality is that you cannot do both? When you're a small business owner that values your employees AND your business, how do you decide? When it comes down to business survival, these are the difficult decisions that few are willing to navigate. InspireHUB's Founder and President, Karolyn Hart provides a compassionate path forward and a third way you may not have considered.


The dilemma of being resource-constrained.

The global pandemic made the world more digital overnight and with it the need for digital transformation with one key difference: the ability to digitally transform will be the difference between survival and extinction for your company.

Small business owners are no strangers to living on this proverbial business edge and being stuck between a rock and a hard place that poses this heart-wrenching challenge.

If you furlough people to purchase necessary technology, the morale DIVES and the leadership is seen as "heartless". People WILL protest and say: "Oh, so you can't afford me, but you can afford to take that money that would feed my family and spend it on THAT?"

If you decide to keep your people and the business closes permanently, then the attitude is now "Their leadership SUCKED. If they had any foresight, they would have made the tough decision to temporarily layoff and do what was necessary so we could all at least have a hope of being employed in the future."

To quote the great Eleanor Roosevelt:


Do what you feel in your heart to be right- for you'll be criticized anyway.
You'll be damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

What's the answer? It's about HOW you find it.

So what's the answer? If you're a #leader that LOVES your people (like I do), then you need to make some #tough choices right now and what you're missing is you need your people's help in making those tough choices.

The answer is this: you make the decision WITH your people.

That's right. Sit down, show them the situation and ask them: "How are WE supposed to do this?" Over the year at InspireHUB, we had to face some difficult challenges. In our early years, we found ourselves in a round of layoffs and in the weeks that followed, it is clear to say there was nothing "inspiring" about being at InspireHUB. We had not done it lightly and had consulted with many people. On paper, the decision looked like the right, one but the collateral damage was significant.

We sat as a small team, and with one single statement, we found a new way forward. We asked: "How do we make sure that this never happens again." So we are clear, we meant it from an operational standpoint for certain, but we also wanted to create a company that all of us actually wanted to work at moving forward. While we did our best to handle the entire situation carefully (including the type of company-wide communications that you'd expect in a difficult season), it still did not feel right. On paper, it looked perfect. The reality of it all was very messy.

To quote Lale Kesebi, CEO, human at work and TED Speaker:

Lale Kesebi - CEO human at work and TED Speaker
"Right now, as a leader, you’re leading into the unknown. Whether you admit it or not, that means you’re in uncharted waters. By definition that means no one knows what’s going to happen. Not you, not your team. Everyone is in it trying to make their way as best as they can. The right thing always is to take your team with you. They know this isn’t easy and that you’ve got at times impossible decisions to make. But you’ll get collective help, support and an opportunity to co-create an outcome you may not have considered. And during the process you’ll be showing respect to the people you serve and the lives you’re impacting. You would want someone to do that exact same thing for you."


A year later, we were faced with a difficult situation. A key employee was fighting cancer, and as a small startup, we were bootstrapping. This time, we gathered the entire team (sans the employee who was busy fighting cancer), and we asked a simple question: What are we going to do? (Emphasis on WE!) This was no longer just a decision from the leadership, but a collective think-tank, or as our Communications Manager refers to it: the "crowd-sourcing of our collective wisdom".

The next series of actions from the employees made us finally worthy of the word inspire that makes up our company name. The team elected to keep him on salary and distribute his duties, taking shifts working late and weekends so he could focus on recovery. They did this for months. As time wore on, people were tiring. It was not a sustainable model. We re-gathered our team and asked the exact same question: "What are we going to do?"

As the leader of InspireHUB, I will tell you that what happened next still chokes me up to this day. The team went away and came back with an answer that I had never even considered. They elected to collectively take a pay cut to hire a contractor until the employee returned. (The employee ended up returning within weeks of this decision and only discovered this story years after it had happened.)

What I discovered at that moment wasn't just that people will surprise you and inspire you if provided the chance but a fundamentally different way of working. In the years following, we used this same approach multiple times for a variety of solutions. Not only did it bring us more innovation, but it had the added advantage of creating unity and increasing morale despite being faced with what often feels like "insurmountable odds".

To quote Margaret Mead:


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world.
Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”


The lessons of crowd-sourcing the collective wisdom within your small business.

  1. Be prepared for emotional responses the first time. It's not easy.
    Having tough, authentic conversations is difficult, and employees who have never been involved in an exercise like this will find it unnerving. If your culture is toxic and there is a low-level of trust, then your staff will likely think the worst. If this is the case, then we suggest sending them this article to read first and asking them "What do you think about doing something like this here?"

  2. You may still need to make a decision that is not popular.
    Just because you are consulting with your employees doesn't mean they will care. That's a tough pill to swallow, but when a person's livelihood is on the line, all they may care about is protecting themselves. It's still worth the effort of trying because of the chance there may be a creative solution you had not considered.

  3. Ask questions. Specifically, ask: "How are we supposed to do that?"
    Chris Voss is a former international hostage negotiator for the FBI and author of the book "Never Split the Difference". He explains how this simple question forces the other side to put themselves in your shoes and really think about a way forward. If someone offers a solution that you know is not feasible don't dismiss their idea. Instead say: "and how are we supposed to do that?" Then wait. It's a critical piece of helping to identify multiple solutions while at the same time educating everyone on the reality of the constraints being faced.

  4. Check your ego at the door. The whole point is to do right not be right.
    When the team presented me with their idea to take a pay cut to the benefit of another employee, I was confronted with a mix of emotions, including the big question: "How did I NOT come up with this idea?" As a matter of context, I went to a Bible College with the goal of making the world a better place. Regardless of your opinions around faith and religion, it's important to understand that during my education I was constantly surrounded by people willingly volunteering to take vows of poverty and give up their money to go and help serve others. Yet, it had not occurred to me to do something similar here? WTW? (Good thing one of my first sermons ever was on hypocrisy, right? Come on, that's funny. It's ok to laugh!) The POINT is this: it's ok if the solution doesn't come from you. It's a collective approach , and it's about doing it together.

  5. Be filled with courage. You may be presented with a solution that seems crazy but could work.
    As the leader, the decision ultimately lies with you. At the end of the day, you need to be able to put your head on your pillow that night and know that you did absolutely everything possible to succeed. Let's say out of this exercise it becomes clear that one (or some) of your staff are not properly equipped to help you with a digital transformation. Your options are to re-train them or to bring in someone who can. Only you know what the right answer is for your business, but the test for you to have peace with what you decide is this: imagine the worst-case scenario.Are you going to be able to say: "I did absolutely everything possible within my human means, plus I tried one more thing." and sleep soundly? Or, are you going to say: "Ugh, I regret not trying that crazy scheme." and have a sleepless night as you think about what could have been? It's really that simple.


Questions to ask your team in the people vs. digital transformation debate within your small business.

The reality is that every business is incredibly unique, and the answer for one business is not the same for another. Here are some statements with questions for your team to consider as you walk through this question.

  • The world is now more digital. Consumers who once weren't familiar with purchasing digital will now have this expectation even after things "return to normal". Are we facing this reality, or are we just hoping things will go back to how they used to be?

  • Social media is THE marketplace for small businesses to get sales and has been for years. What is our current skill set on our team, and what do we need to do to get trained? [Hint: HubSpot offers FREE Inbound Marketing Certification. At InspireHUB, we ask everyone in sales and marketing to complete this great course!)

  • Writing down the true worst-case scenario is important to understand. For employees, your worst-case scenario may be "I lose my job right now." For us as owners, it is: "We lose the business and can never hire anyone back." What do we each think is truly the worst-case scenario? Are we willing to let this happen? How do we work toward a better future?


A final thought ...

For what it's worth, the InspireHUB team discovered the real challenge happens when people don't understand all that is involved and aren't requested to help be a part of the solution. When we look back on those early layoffs we realize (in hindsight) that some of the best solutions may have been found in the people we let go. The harsh reality is that now we will never know.

Since implementing this approach, we've found solutions to many difficult situations. It's not a silver bullet. As a leader, it's STILL entirely possible to implement a decision that doesn't work and make a wrong call. However, adding this exercise into the mix will certainly offer you more options than without it. The answers your team will provide will be as unique as your company. For the record, sometimes the answer is saying goodbye to a teammate temporarily or permanently. What we can say now, however, is that even if the final decision is not popular, inviting everyone to try and find a way together is definitely preferred over the traditional decision-tree processes of old.


The Ultimate Small Business Survival Guide
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Topics: small business, employee satisfaction, workplace culture, Digital Rescue Kit, business strategy, change management, crisis management, business continuity, Lale Kesebi

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