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 whom 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, 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 powerful business case for a new suite of 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.
The approach that works is when an organisation draws together all its ideas, from conversations and observations, and narrows them down to a few areas that are interesting, then skills up a few people to go out, without a fully developed solution, but with enough of an idea to have real sales conversations with actual potential customers to find out what and where their true appetites are.
It’s a challenging approach because it means investing in time and people to explore an opportunity before any business case is developed.
It means spending some cash, at risk, to test and develop an opportunity. Equally, it avoids taking the far bigger risk of launching a fully-fledged service into an untested market, based on a beautifully thorough business case built entirely out of sand.
Yet boards want a business case before they allocate spend; executive teams want to know the value of an initiative before they put good people onto it; and teams themselves want to know exactly what they’re offering before they speak to customers.
Hence, they want a detailed offer and a full business case that, if history is any guide, will fail to deliver any of their ambitions.
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.
Most people respond positively to the challenge and they value the clarity they get. Most change their expectations and ask for a more appropriate type of help, but a few choose to go and find someone else to work with who will do what they want, and that’s their choice.
Being a charity professional in service delivery is no different.
You can’t please all the commissioners all the time, because what they want is often not what their area needs.
What they might want is a pair of hands to deliver a list of activities, when what their area needs is 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.
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?
Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting