A few minutes later the Admiral argued (and won) a battle by saying, "Sometime we [our company] can get get fired for doing exactly what the client asks."
Now both of these ideas have merit. Yes, we must give the client what they ask for. The customer is always right, right? But sometimes we have to see past what they WANT to what they NEED. The customer lacks vision; that's why they hire us, right?
Yup I accept that these contradictory ideas can exist at the same time. Though I can't say I have ever heard them uttered about the SAME client project in the SAME meeting and by the SAME mouth.
Now if I did not know the Admiral as well as I do, I would assume this was just a case of a high ranking exec justifying inconsistent ideas and shutting down any challenges with pithy phrases.
OK. That might have been a teeny bit of this situation.
But in general the Admiral is a brilliant, if tangential, thinker with an innate sense of business strategy. In other words, I couldn't dismiss the contradiction solely as executive ego on parade.
In this case the client had asked for a survey of competitors with recommendations for improvement. A valuable exercise to be sure. Emulating others and making incremental improvements can close gaps, but it will never lead to innovation. You can't become a market leader by "following better".
The client wants to understand and beat their competitors. But simply closing any gaps is not enough.
How to reconcile what they want with what they really need? In my opinion the key is to find a way to answer both the want and the need in sequence. Personally I feel like the answers are stronger separated into two deliverables, but at minimum they should be presented in discrete bites.
You can't ignore the ask, even if you "know" better. If you agreed to a gap analysis, you need to provide one. Package the answer in the cleanest and clearest way you can. Provide a realistic diagnostic of the gaps to competitors and the improvement needed to reach parity.
Only then, after the ask is complete, can you expand to larger ideas, ideas that challenge the status quo and may not even be possible today. This type of "no rules" thinking is the way innovation happens.
Here is the kicker... Even if you KNOW you need to go there, presenting the second step without the first is a big mistake, IMHO. It not only disregards the clients request, but it also "cheats" by ignoring the constraints of the client's reality. Any of us can design a flying car, if we start the the assumption that gravity does not exist!
Ambiguity is not my favorite thing. But the more I thought about the apparent contradiction of "do what the client wants" and "sometimes we fail if we do exactly what the client wants," the more I realized they can live in harmony by answering both in sequence.