Getting Proactive (and Qualitative) with Return on Investment (ROI)

Just reading that will give some people hives.  I know.  Sorry.  There are the hardcore analysts out there that will pursue a quantitative approach to ROI—at the exclusion of all others. The unfortunate impact of this mindset is that we forego any efforts to evaluate the return because we don’t have data and, in doing so, inadvertently create a bigger problem. 

With most projects, the sponsor, benefitting community, or passive observers (Congress, OMB, etc.) will let an investment go for some period of time until…. Wham!  Someone, somewhere raises a seemingly innocent question in a meeting that goes something like, “So, what are getting out of all this effort and money spent?” 

At first blush, it seems straightforward and reasonable but sends shockwaves out to the program/project team.  They know that coming back with an answer that seems satisfying once you get to this point is nearly impossible.

I’m working with a federal client now who wants to/needs to evaluate the return on an internally-developed training program. Based on informal participant and manager feedback, the course is actually pretty good.  However with budgets being what they are, all special projects within this program are being evaluated.  Should they continue to invest or cut it and refocus on the funds? 

So in reactive mode, the team is scrambling a bit to come up with some numbers that tell the story in the most compelling, irrefutable way possible.  It’s not easy and not because the investment itself is bad.  The numbers just don’t really exist—at least, not in the way we’d ideally like them to right about now.

An alternative approach is to start gathering snippets of feedback, industry news/trends, and informal observations right after project launch.  Let them accumulate for a couple weeks then convert them to a living, evolving document that demonstrates the value (or not) of the project.  Having something like this handy when the inevitable questions come up is incredibly compelling in and of itself. 

While doing this, we need to be completely upfront (and proud even?) of the fact that, “yeah, I don’t have the hard numbers (after all, everyone knows that you don’t anyway) but look at the kind of feedback we’re getting.”  Being proactive and telling the story early and consistently is critical.

It seems so fitting that ROI also translates to “king” in French, non?