Your ROI is Total BS

ROI is meaningless.  GP% is meaningless.  Signups.  Clicks.  Views.  None of these tell you anything meaningful or actionable.  None of this ensures survival.  In fact, it is through sheer mass that some enterprises survive.  It is the churn of hype cycles and perceived value that keep new customers fooled.  But it is definitely not sustainable.  Big investments end with big blunders that result in mass layoffs and enormous bankruptcies.  The name is the only thing that survives. Is that the company you set out to build?  No.

Let’s assume you are a software company selling enterprise SAAS.  Your entire company is the value stream.  The ongoing operating costs are less than ongoing revenue.  Investing in the sustainability of your model of economic value creation and capture is every dollar you spend.  Those dollars, little by little, react with the market either creating or negating value creation.

The problem is that most enterprises work from the assumption that large investments equate with economies of scale.  While this may be true of investment in automated manufacturing there are no economies of scale in software development.  It is the individual knowledge workers that create innovative software.  The velocity with which you can adapt as a system combined with superior understanding of problem-solution fit in the market is the key to competitive advantage.

The question of how to invest should be quite simple when you are a large company that has revenue growing at the same rate as costs – small investments per opportunity with maximum ability to correct an incorrect investment.

That is enterprise agility.

Enterprise Agility is the speed at which an incorrect decision is recognized corrected.  The smaller the investment decision, the faster the return is known. Lean trims the excess weight, off-balance feedback, and poor technique that undermine agility.  The effective flow of information across the creative process of knowledge workers is essential.

This is where you must realize that unless you layoff staff, you’re investing the same amount continuously.  The ROI of a project is as meaningless as the ROI of a developer day.  The input of resources is relatively static, maximizing the value stream as a system is essential.

This is why the a right-place/right-time, brilliant, socially-savvy entrepreneur-engineer is the most agile and lean possibility: perfect and instantaneous knowledge-sharing internally (in the brain), distinct competitive advantage through the extremely unique skill set (s)he has grown to master.  That is the sprinter that you want your Superorganism to become.  In the right place, at the right time, with the correct knowledge and materials, with instantaneous information flow across the value stream.

So if ROI is meaningless to decisions (because we are paying for individual pursuit of knowledge-worker-creativity regardless of rate of return), how do we possibly make rational financial decisions about innovation, discovery and exploitation of economics rents?  In fact, lean manufacturing has studied this for decades.  When the rate of investment (the cost of production) is held constant, prioritization of economic value added rather than expected rate of return should be our focus.  In a zero-sum competitive game with uncertain returns and asymmetrical information, the time between investment and value capture is the only meaningful variable we can impact.  While cost of delay versus product lifetime return on investment may be more difficult to understand when looking at Toyota and the Prius, this is easy to see with Software as a Service, because the continuous addition of value in exchange for subscription-based fees creates two roughly stable lines. The only meaningful way to improve investment is to exploit information asymmetry more effectively than your competition.  Since you are investing the same amount continuously, you must minimize the cost of delay of value capture.

To put it another way: In a system with continuous investment, only the opportunity cost incurred due to delaying an investment matters. This is not first-mover advantage at the new product-market level, this most-effective exploiter of innovation as an a competitive advantage.  This requires a shift to systems thinking and investment in strength of culture. Money is not your scarcest resource. Brilliance-time (that you’re paying rent for daily) is your scarcest resource.  To maximize value capture, you must maximize the time spent in a state of market information asymmetry.  At the current pace of innovation and obsolescence, the only way to maximize value capture is to minimize cost of delay due to incorrect prioritization.

This implies three goals:

1 – Minimize the impact of an incorrect investment of system-brilliance-time by reducing size of each commitment

2 – Increase the adaptiveness of the system to maximize throughout and future adaptiveness

3 – Minimize the time it takes to receive feedback (primarily through analytics) from the market

4 – Make appropriate risk-taking and experimentation a normal part of every creative process

4 thoughts on “Your ROI is Total BS

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