What Are Needs?

What Are Needs?

The Antimatter Principle suggests we might like to approach “work” from the perspective of attending to folks’ needs. This in turn suggests that we might find it useful to have a shared understanding of what we mean by “needs”.

In software – and product – development, folks might feel they already have a working definition of the term “needs”. Many software and product development conversations revolve around what the (generic) customer might need, or even what a particular individual customer might need. Often these “needs” are expressed in the form of more-or-less elaborated User Stories, Use Cases, or some other form of so-called “functional requirements”. Some few teams may go so far as delving into the non-functional requirements of the software or products – or policies, or the way the work works – under development.

Deep Emotional Needs

These more or less familiar “needs” are not the needs I have in mind when proposing the Antimatter Principle. Rather, I’m thinking of the deep, emotional needs of the folks involved.

For example, we might all recognise a statement from a CFO like “I need to be able to close each month’s books within 3 days of the end of each calendar month.” Or even “I need to present monthly accounts within the first three days of each new month”. More unfamiliar perhaps might be a statement such as “I need to appear consistently competent in the eyes of the board, my peers, my staff, and the regulatory folks.”  Or “I need to feel confident that things are under control and running smoothly enough so I have time to be on the Golf course every week”. The latter statements open many more doors for discovering – and doing – what matters, than do the former.

This Needs Inventory illustrates a range of these deeper emotional needs.

Problems and Opportunities

This presents problems and opportunities both. The most obvious and immediate problem I have regularly seen is folks who – for various reasons – don’t want to express their real, emotional needs. After all, talking about one’s emotional needs to other folks in the workplace is not such a commonplace event. Add hierarchy and power structures into that melange and the difficulties can assume biblical proportions. In many organisations, even the whiff of being “needy” can quickly become career-limiting. Another challenge is in finding reasonably truthful representations of folks’ expressions of needs – so they can be shared with all those who might want to be aware of them, for example. And then there’s the question of confidentiality. Who gets to see these intimate expressions of needs?

All these challenges can quickly add up. And in organisations where trust is low and emotions, feelings and needs can get quickly swept under the carpet, even broaching the subject of the Antimatter Principle can prove, erm, fraught.

So why would we want to open up this particular can of worms? Well, for the benefits, of course. One immediately obvious benefit is in contributing to folks’ vulnerability and thereby the building of trust within and across the organisation. More beneficial though, although maybe less obvious, is the opening up of folks’ personal agendas. People can begin to work on meeting real needs, not just churning through make-work. This provides for both an immediate double-whammy and a virtuous circle.

The double-whammy is that a) more of the organisation’s resources are committed to things that really count for something – meeting people’s needs, and b) folks feel like what they’re doing has some real meaning for once.

The virtuous circle is that as folks talk more about their emotional needs, these conversations build trust, more humane relationships, and a healthier, more enlightened organisation, which encourages folks to open up and talk more about their emotional needs, which…. and so on.

Starting Small

From the outset, most folks will likely not want – nor know how – to talk about their deeper emotional needs. Nor share them with all and sundry. So early conversations will likely revolve around more prosaic and superficial needs. Such as product features, user stories, and so on. This is all to be expected, and any conversation in my book is an opportunity for folks to develop deeper relationships – as and when they feel comfortable in doing so. The Antimatter Principle plays a crucial role here in providing the necessary crucible for encouraging this kind of evolution of deeper dialogue.


Needs are not generally obvious at first sight, even to the person having the need. Rather, we might hypothesise about a need, then try to get it met – for example, by making one or more refusable requests. Only once we have seen our requests fulfilled can we evaluate whether what we thought was going to meet our need actually has.


Discovery of folks’ needs happens serendipitously. That is, we can never know just when someone might become conscious of a need (although we can choose to apply techniques which increase our chances). So discovery is an ongoing process, and the way our work works might benefit from recognising this. We’re always operating on imperfect knowledge, in any case. If we can line things up such that each newly discovered need – and the accompanying refusable request(s) – gets quickly shared and adopted into the general pattern of what it is we’re trying to achieve, then so much the better. So folks might already know this as “inspect and adapt”.

– Bob

Further Reading

Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together ~ William Isaacs

  1. galleman said:

    The need “I need to be able to close each month’s books within 3 days of the end of each calendar month.” can be “flowed down” to the software system. Not sure how “I need to be golfing…” can be translated to capabilities, requirements etc. But the first is many times missing in our domain.

    • Hi Glen,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. Yes, even the “prosaic, superficial” needs are often missing, I agree. My wider point is that even if we recognise and attempt to fulfil these surface needs, we’re only ever guessing at the deeper underlying emotional needs driving the superficial ones. And if we fail to meet the underlying needs, folks will not be happy, however competent the superficial solutions.

      Of course, we can never hope to get it all exactly “right”, but at least it would be “better”?

      – Bob

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