wants and needs are the same thing right wrong

Wants and needs are the same thing, right? Wrong!

It occurred to me recently, in that sudden, unbidden way that ideas usually pounce, that I’ve worked in Learning and Development for 23 years. That’s exactly half the time I’ve existed. I haven’t yet worked out whether to be thrilled at this achievement, or alarmed that life’s moving so quickly. I’ve been really lucky and I’ve had the chance to work with people across geographical, cultural and ethical boundaries and I’ve come into contact with a very broad spectrum, hierarchically speaking. If I analysed things in a purely reflective, non-scientific kind of way, I’d be happy to gamble that the further a sponsor is from the chalk face, the more distorted their view of learning that needs to happen within their organisation. That’s a key word: needs.

It’s probably appropriate for me to define who the sponsor is in this context. Avert your eyes if you have a particularly sensitive political correctness radar; the sponsor’s the MAN … the person or people who have the Money, Authority and Need for an intervention. Technically, the MAN could be a woman. Or a man. Or both, if there’s more than one. Whatever. You get the picture, right?

Anyway, my point is that there’ve been so many times that I’ve had to divorce a sponsor’s wants from their needs, that it’s almost become a part of my TNA’s DNA. Validating the need, if you will. You might have found yourself in a similar position, where a sponsor tells you want they want to happen and expect you to react without question, leaving your experience and expertise counting for nothing.

The thing is, both you and I know that what the sponsor wants might not always translate into what the business needs. With this in mind, I use some strategies to really help the sponsor to think about what they’re asking for and I find the following questions can crystallise their thoughts before discussing more detailed, logistic information:

• How do you know that there’s an issue that needs to be addressed?
• What’s your evidence?
• What was the trigger?
• What measurement mechanisms have you used to determine that there’s a need?
• How will satisfying this learning need contribute to the organisation’s objectives?
• If we didn’t do anything, what would happen?
• What’s the minimum level of intervention you’ll accept?
• In terms of your priorities, where does this intervention sit?
• What are other Department Heads’ thoughts?

It doesn’t end there; the sponsor’s perspective is but one in a sea of many and might be at a high, strategic level. Going into the wider business and finding more information is always a valuable activity. As well as studying management information, there are different people and departments who can give you their view on the sponsor’s perception. These could include:

• Staff
- Subject matter experts
- Members of the target audience
• Line Managers
• Customers
• Suppliers
• Competitors
• Regulators

When you’re having a meaningful discussion with the sponsor and others around the business about the crux of the matter, consider the benefits of establishing why there’s an issue; why people aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Is it because:

• They don’t have the tools for the job?
• They’re under undue time pressure?
• They didn’t know what they had to?
• The systems or processes get in the way?
• The task is too difficult?

Sometimes, removing the reason is the solution.

So, the next time a sponsor presents you with a demand for a learning intervention, check yourself. Are you going to continue to be an order-taker, or will you take the time to divorce their wants from their needs?

What conversations do you currently have with your internal or external sponsor when you’re analysing training needs?  It’d be great if you’d share your stories.


Paul Edmondson is an international L&D consultant and Head of Training at .

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