Pleasing all the people

Want and need - sWhat it means to be an expert and a professional…

When one of our children was diagnosed with Asperger’s it initially came as a relief. It helped to explain the challenges that we and his school were having, and it got us access to professionals that we hoped might help.

Of course, the help that we wanted, was for those professionals to spend time with him, to teach him strategies for being “normal”, and to mitigate all of those challenges for us.

It was frustrating then, that those professionals seemed to want to spend most of the time with us, his parents, rather than with him. And it took quite some time for us to realise that there was a good reason for that: what we wanted was not what he needed. The changes that were required weren’t in the boy’s gift to make; they were in our gift: in the way he was parented, the way he was taught, the way he was understood, accommodated and allowed to thrive as himself.

He was lucky that there were people around us who understood the difference, and who subtly but firmly denied us what we wanted and instead, gave us what he needed. Ironically, making that same distinction, between want and need, is critical for someone in my profession as well. As a consultant I’m often asked to help an organisation with what they want to achieve, when from experience, I know that they actually need something else.

I’m regularly asked to help teams develop new earned income streams, on the assumption that, through a bunch of workshops and some desktop research, we will develop a well-researched business case and a suite of fully formed products and services, that they can launch to a fanfare of applause and a stampede of customers. That’s what they want, but it’s not what they need.

What they need is a very small number of really good ideas, and the skills and confidence to get out there, to meet potential customers, and to use those ideas to provoke conversations that will unearth the genuine needs and opportunities. That way they can test and develop solutions, prove there’s a market, and build a real-life business case before they press the expensive launch button.

But that route feels harder and messier, because it means investing time and money to explore an opportunity before a case is developed. It means Boards putting a chunk of charity money at risk without knowing the returns; Executive teams putting good people onto an initiative before knowing its value; and teams speaking to customers before knowing exactly what they have to offer. But it also means they don’t spend far more money and time developing and launching something that looks brilliant on paper, but it turns out nobody wants.

Being a professional consultant means knowing that you can’t please all the people all the time, and experience means that you have those conversations up front. Some people recognise it’s a smarter approach and will give them what they need; others will find someone else who will do what they want, and that’s their choice.

But being a charity professional in service delivery is no different. You can’t please all the commissioners all the time, because often, what they want is not what their area needs. What they may want is a pair of hands to deliver a list of activities, when what their area needs are social outcomes achieved in an economically viable way.

Most charities are expert and experienced enough to know when what they’re being asked to do isn’t right, or isn’t enough, or isn’t the best way to achieve the goal. But few are confident enough to have those conversations up front, to subtly but firmly deploy that expertise with articulacy and persuasiveness, and to give commissioners the opportunity to respond positively to the clarity and authority of their professional experience. It takes time, it takes skill, and it takes confidence.

So, the next time you’re in front of a commissioner, take a leaf out of the autism professionals’ book and ask yourself: how close are the wants of the commissioner to the needs of their constituents, and how can you, politely, firmly, expertly and professionally, help them to bridge that gap?

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