Do no harm: when initiator is not authorizer

When a customer comes through the door, especially if you’re a consultant, it’s a good idea to know why they came in the door. When a customer comes through my door, I like to know why and then I like to know who initiated that person coming through my door.

For example, if someone asks me to present a two day training seminar on customer relationships, I’ll ask “Who decided that a training seminar was necessary?” or “Who mandated this training?”

I ask because it’s just as likely they need something else entirely. And if I put on a two day training seminar, and they get nothing out of it, then I’ve done harm. Part of my philosophy in business is to do no harm.

Asking who initiated the request gets at the heart of the person that’s likely to know what is ultimately needed. Talking with this person allows me to triangulate needs from wants.

Sometimes I’m dealing with the person that initiated the request. Sometimes I’m not. If I’m not, I know I have to eventually have a conversation with the initiator to make sure I’m not doing any harm.

If I am dealing with the initiator, I will ask them a second question: “Whose budget will support this initiative?” Sometimes this is phrased as “Who can immediately authorize my involvement?” I ask this because the person that can authorize my involvement is the person who will set the expectations that success will be bound to. And I prefer knowing what signifies success before I engage in a project.

Occasionally what I find, and it’s disheartening when I can be of help, is that the person that initiated a request has no authority to authorize my involvement. It’s not a matter of getting internal sign off (rubber stamping). They simply do not have the authority to spend money, they must justify the expenditure to someone else, someone that was not involved in initiating the request.

As much as I would like to help, when the initiator does not have the authority to involve me, I have to pass up the work. In 99% of these situations, the priorities of the person that does have authority do not entail the priorities of the initiator. Proposing my involvement is wasting the initiator’s time and my own.

Add to that, that initiators tend to be very protective of resources. As much as I want to help, the initiator would be interested in minimizing my costs so they can easily justify the request to the person that can authorize it. That’s a recipe for disaster in terms of accomplishing whatever desired result they had in mind. In which case, the likelihood of my doing harm skyrockets. And that is unacceptable to me.

Most of the time, the initiator not being the authorizer is rare. Most of the time, the authorizer has simply sent someone to do their bidding. That’s not hard to turn into a productive conversation. But, when the initiator truly isn’t the authorizer, occasionally we will find a need of the authorizer that parallels the need of the initiator. From that need, I’m able to make everyone happy and avoid doing harm.