Anyone can spend a budget, but can they get an ROI?

By Andrew Bass | Blog, Newsletter, Strategy, Value Building

Andrew Bass’s Pragmatics Newsletter August 2013

Practical techniques and thought-provoking ideas

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Anyone can spend a budget, but can they get an ROI?

Politicians of all stripes will try to convince you of their worth by telling you how much money they have poured into a particular strategic area, usually health, education or policing. It is much rarer to hear them talking about the increase in value they got back for the extra money (never mind that the money they so generously have “given” was not theirs in the first place – this is a basic confusion for most politicians and they are not likely to make the effort to achieve clarity!).

Politicians do seem to dislike the inconvenience of considering the whole picture, preferring to select the most flattering bit of the story. It’s much easier to claim credit for effort – especially that of other people – rather than results.

Businesspeople may find it easy to scoff: after all, business is all about results, right?

Well …business people also confuse inputs and outputs. Maybe it’s a general human tendency. Consider this:

How did the actual cost of marketing you last reported come about? Was it the amount you needed to spend to achieve the strategic result you sought? Did you look for ideas which would give you the most bang for your buck and then allocate the bucks? Or was the spend allocated in the year previously, therefore acting as a powerful constraint on your marketing possibilities, so that for example:

  • if you developed mid-year a potential project with an unexpectedly high ROI – a desired output – you had no way of increasing your investment to take advantage in time?
  • because they had a fixed budget, people were psyched out of innovating more effective projects in the first place?
  • your overall marketing emphasis enshrined a strategy at least a year and a half out of date?

And what about other areas:

  • Do you give your learning and development people a fixed budget which they then use up with whichever courses, programmes and modish trainers they can find? Or do you start with the behaviour and skills required by your business model and then figure out how most effectively to create them?
  • And what about IT,R&D etc?

Just as work expands to fill the time available, people always find a way to spend their pre-allocated budgets.

In contrast, I know businesses that have achieved dramatic results by drilling everyone to ask and answer the following simple question (too simple?) in response to any request for money: “What is the return on this investment?”

And I’m not just talking about large scale project appraisal; I’m talking about every request for funds: perks, expense reimbursements, travel to in-person meetings, gadgets, bits of software, paperclips….

The point is not to stop people spending. Far from it – the point is to encourage ROI thinking, which is possible even at mundane levels. The more you encourage it, the more it becomes a habit, and then affects the overall quality of debate and decision making.

Give it a try: at first people might be taken aback, and find it hard to answer when you ask “What’s the return on this?”, but if you persevere, and coach them a bit, they will start to anticipate you, and start bringing you ideas you are delighted to say “Yes” to.


Related post you may have missed

In a warning about the dangers of allowing means to triumph over ends, Nietzsche said: “During the journey we commonly forget its goal. Almost every profession is chosen and commenced as a means to an end but continued as an end in itself. Forgetting our objectives is the most frequent of all acts of stupidity.” Read more.


Andrew’s Performance Podcast revisited   Sept 2012 – Avoiding Communication Traps that Snarl Up Decision-making

Sensitivity to the different ways your team members prefer to collect information, balance risk & opportunity, and make decisions, can smooth collaboration and make best use of the talent in the room. Listen now.

© 2013 Andrew Bass. All Rights Reserved.