How do we get leaders to delay gratification and make time to analyze organizational needs up front?
How would you respond if a colleague says, "A needs assessment? We don't have time for that. We already know what the problem is, so let's start fixing it today, not three or six months from now."?
A needs assessment is a study of the gap between an organization's desired state and its current state. When done correctly, a needs assessment challenges assumptions and broadens the discussion to include data and divergent perspectives, mitigates groupthink and individual biases, enables better decision making, engenders inclusion, and ultimately leads to better, faster business results.
Even so, not all leadership teams agree. According to ATD Research's Needs Assessment: Design and Execution for Success, only 56 percent of respondents use needs assessments in their organizational problem solving, and 37 percent do not use needs assessments at all.
Let's examine the biases that underlie this stubborn resistance and explore strategies for advocating needs assessments.
Why they resist
According to ATD's report, the top objections to needs assessments are:
- stakeholders already feel they understand the need
- conducting a proper needs assessment will take too long
- getting buy—in from everyone involved is too big a production.
These objections reflect two common biases: a bias for action and a confirmation bias.
Bias for action. In high—stakes situations, leaders feel increased pressure to act with a sense of urgency, often thinking they have less time to act than they really do. While a bias for action can be a positive trait, it can also push leaders to make mission—critical decisions and take high—risk actions without the benefit of objective data, divergent perspectives, and other evidence.
Confirmation bias. Leaders often have a strong belief that they know—not just think they know, but absolutely know—the organizational need. They form early opinions, often based on prior knowledge, orthodoxy, and rules of thumb. And then they selectively shoehorn subsequent data points into that narrative, transforming that opinion into a compelling business case that, from the outside, appears rational. When this confirmation bias is brought to bear on an issue with the weight of a senior leader's political capital, it is difficult for anyone in the organization to counter the argument.
Because of these and other biases, much of what leaders initially think they know about an organizational need is incorrect, out of date, or incomplete.
Business case for needs assessments
In The Essential Drucker, Peter Drucker writes: "Executives of necessity live and work within an organization. Unless they make conscious efforts to perceive the outside, the inside may blind them to the true reality." The C—suite's glass partitions can be deceptively isolating, so it takes even more conscious effort for senior executives to perceive what is really happening outside those walls—in the hallways, on the plant floor, on sales calls, in the lab, on the docks, and in the call centers.
An organizational needs assessment brings that outside—the—bubble perspective to the forefront; validates or challenges intuition; and ensures that leadership focuses the company's limited time, capital, and resources on the right need. It also ensures broad buy—in and support from the various stakeholders who will ultimately make or break the success of any solution. Conducting a needs assessment is about getting it right the first time. When the stakes are high enough, there may be no second chance.
In Cost—Consequence Analysis, Roger Kaufman's 1997 Performance Improvement Quarterly case study, the state of Florida projected the cost and earnings for alternative job training programs and was able to select one with high potential return on investment, saving time and millions of taxpayer dollars by avoiding a trial—and—error approach. And a 2012 PIQ case study showed how a needs assessment could be used to diagnose and transform an ailing city.
There are countless examples of organizations getting it right the first time through due diligence, just as there are too many examples of ill—advised business decisions, such as the introduction of New Coke or the exporting of the Chevy Nova to Latin America (where "no va" means "no—go"), that may have been prevented with a little more evidence and a little less hubris.
Strategies for overcoming resistance
Here are five strategies that organizations have used successfully to overcome resistance to needs assessments.
Hedge your bet—a little fear is good. If you can't ask leaders to delay decision making, then nudge them toward a two—pronged approach. Pursue the fast fix as a working hypothesis but, in parallel, inform your thinking by gathering evidence. This way, you appease the overriding desire to do something while gaining support for a needs assessment to hedge against failure. For example, pilot a forced ranking while also gathering evidence of its effectiveness relative to the need.
Buy time, but don't burn the ships yet. Consider whether it is possible to take the issue temporarily offline, bypassing it with redundant systems. Doing so can relieve the pressure long enough to allow for a needs assessment. For example, a package delivery service has been slow to automate its processes and is rushing to catch up, but its new, fully automated facility is experiencing problems. The older, manual facility is scheduled for decommissioning. If the organization delays the shutdown, it buys time for the new plant to get things right.
Redundancies cost money, of course, but may save a great deal more in the longer term.
Get early wins, and don't chase waterfalls. Even large—scale needs assessments don't need to follow a strict waterfall process methodology. Size and complexity tend to undermine speed, which feeds the perception that needs assessments take too long. A phased, iterative approach can produce faster, even better results.
Start with some rapid data collection and analysis to bring the need into focus, identifying early insights, root causes, and quick fixes. An effective way to do that is to bring everyone with skin in the game together for a workshop, where they reconcile perspectives in real time and walk out with commitments, among them some agreed—upon quick fixes. Then, apply quick fixes and evaluate their effectiveness while in parallel conducting a more in—depth analysis of deeper, thornier root causes.
For example, a third—party service provider is struggling to satisfy its service agreement. The initial analysis may focus on how to fix the immediate issues with that service provider, but a deeper analysis may look at whether that is the right supplier or even if third—party outsourcing is really the best solution.
Splitting the needs assessment into manageable phases that help you implement quick fixes while also looking at deeper, more fundamental root causes is another way to satiate the bias for action while still doing the right thing.
Make a needs assessment the norm. One noticeable difference in organizations that use needs assessments is that evidence—based decision making is already baked into their culture. It is often part of their leadership values and competencies. They have analytical processes that they regularly use (such as Lean Six Sigma), so they already have dashboards with key metrics and workflows for collecting and communicating performance data.
One company makes it a practice that with any decision worth more than $1 million, it assembles a panel of representatives from the field to evaluate the business case. They have standard methods and tools for presenting business cases. Leaders receive training on needs assessment, strategic thinking, decision making, analytics, and common biases.
Start small and first earn the right. One reason some leaders are resistant to needs assessments is that they have previously participated in failed attempts. They will tell you stories of analysis paralysis that gripped the organization because of lengthy studies conducted by outside consultants who didn't really understand the business and took forever to deliver reports that offered no insight or useful recommendations.
Recognize that not all needs assessments are well executed, and that a poorly conducted one can undermine credibility. If your senior leaders feel that they have been burned by needs assessments in the past, rebuild their credibility slowly. Start small with projects that you can manage closely and, with an awareness of common objections and best practices (see the sidebar), demonstrate how a well—run needs assessment can make a difference in your organization. String a few wins together, and other leaders will take notice, and some will look to emulate your success.
Why is resistance to needs assessments still a thing? If your car's motor is sputtering, would you expect your mechanic to order a replacement engine immediately or first look under the hood? We expect professionals of all types to conduct their due diligence before coming to a needs diagnosis, so why should organizational leaders get a free pass?
Formal methodologies for conducting needs assessments have been around for decades, and Kaufman's 1993 Needs Assessment: A User's Guide provides a practical framework. So, what is keeping your organization from adopting an evidence—based approach to solving problems and getting them right the first time?
Five Strategies for Gaining C—Suite Support
Hedge your bets.
Get early wins.
Make it the norm.
A poorly executed or presented needs assessment undermines the perceived value of the process. If your needs assessment provides fast, credible insights that help leaders collaboratively solve organizational problems, you will earn the right to ask for more opportunities.
Don't Slip on the Dismount: Best Practices
Even when needs assessments are well executed, it's easy to overlook the most important step: presenting the results in a way that influences decision making, catalyzes action, and ultimately delivers results. Here are some tips for presenting your needs assessment results to the C—suite.
Speed: Making the C—suite wait will marginalize your needs assessment, so address the need for speed by structuring your project such that you can deliver early insights and pulse additional insights over time.
Insight: Some analysts mistakenly think they are there to report the data. No, leaders need insights—concise, compelling information that they don't already know. Make sure that this need for insight stays front and center throughout the project and that you lead with it in your presentations.
Credibility: When the methodology is shoddy, confidentiality is in question, or objectivity is compromised, skeptics will have opportunities to question the results. Ensure that independence, confidentiality, and objectivity are protected and reinforce how in your presentations.
Collaboration: Leaders hate being blindsided, so proactively and discreetly involve them to diffuse any potentially embarrassing results, gain their support, and give them an opportunity to get out in front of the news before those results are shared more broadly. Making political enemies will not help you solve the problem.
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