Why Before How: The Right Way To Think About ROI

In today’s fast-changing world, it’s tempting to try playing it safe and aim too low, because big goals and plans can get derailed quickly. But that’s a trap! ROI has two parts – return and investment. Start by focusing on the return – the impact and benefits of taking bold steps – and you can dream bigger, achieve more, and turn challenges into springboards for growth and innovation.

Are your goals too small?

I was recently speaking with a CEO who has engaged me to work with her leadership team to run my Disruption By Design program for them.

The goal of this program is to get people thinking about how we can disrupt ourselves – to innovate before something outside disrupts us. This organisation works in a sector that’s been through a lot of disruption (from COVID, AI, and many industry-specific pressures), and the CEO said, “We seem to be lurching from crisis to crisis”.

She pointed out that as a result, she’s observing a pattern where many leaders tend to make their goals too small and their plans too short. They believe there’s no point in setting big goals and making longer plans because some unexpected force witll disrupt them before they achieve those goals.

This is a common trap for many organisations, especially in times of change and uncertainty – as of course we’re all facing now.

That’s why this CEO – who is obviously smart enough to observe this – wants the Disruption By Design program to encourage and support people in aiming for big goals. She wants big projects and goals that are almost too difficult – not impossible, but slightly out of their reach.

I love this kind of thinking, and it starts with rethinking ROI.

ROI – return on investment – has two parts:

  • Return: the benefits and outcomes of achieving that goal
  • Investment: the work required to achieve the goal

There’s nothing wrong with thinking of ROI of a project before you start, but be careful not to focus too much on the “I”. Especially in times of uncertainty and change, or for innovative projects where the process is unknown, it’s tempting to be so scared of the “I” that it overwhelms the “R”.

The return is about the outcome, and the investment is about the process. The return is about the Why, and the investment is about the How.

Obviously, you need to balance both, but sometimes, if you can create a compelling return, then you’re willing to make a more significant investment.

Always put the why first.

As a leader, use these three questions to help you get started:

  1. How is this going to make our customers’ lives better? What’s the benefit for the world if we take on this project and succeed?
  2. How is this going to be good for our team? The process might help people with their personal and professional development, or the project might build team cohesion and a positive culture.
  3. What’s in it for me? Identify the benefits for you in taking on this worthwhile, challenging, almost impossible goal.

For other questions, download my worksheet Why Before How, which gives you a list of questions you can use as a team exercise.


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