Many unhappy returns

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.



Over the course of the last year, I’ve had a few close brushes with corporate wellness, a world that I’ve found to be strange and in many ways, extremely disturbing. In general, every encounter has had a strikingly similar look and feel: I make a pitch to someone in the organization and lay out all the advantages of a healthy workforce and the need for training. Time and again, people nod their heads, mull it over for a bit and then say “What’s the ROI on that?”

As you might imagine, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with each repetition of the question. “That’s it?” I want to say. “Your workforce is falling into a state of disease, stress, depression, chronic pain and presenteeism and all you can ask is whether or not there might be some financial payoff in making people healthier? Are you mad? Isn’t it self-evident that any pro-active health measures will inevitably have ripple effects that will benefit your organization at every level? Aren’t healthy people more effective and creative on the job? Isn’t health a powerful win-win for workers, managers, investors and customers alike? But silly me. I guess I just don’t understand the merits of short-term thinking. Maybe I should have gone to biz school.

At any rate, it's hard not to speculate on the shallow lives and crippled imaginations of the ROI-obsessed. We can well imagine these compulsive accountants putting the same question to every other dimension of human life: “What’s the ROI on getting out of bed in the morning?” “What’s the ROI on getting an education?” “What’s the ROI on love and hot sex?” What's the ROI on art and beauty?" “What’s the ROI on raising a family?” “What’s the ROI on a healthy community?” “What’s the ROI on fresh water?” “What’s the ROI on a habitable planet?”

The ROI question seems to roll off our modern tongues as if it were a normal approach to life, but in fact, it’s historically unprecedented. This fact becomes obvious when we think of all the people in human history that didn’t ask it. Our greatest artists, scientists, explorers and seekers never asked about ROI. Primal peoples didn't ask it. Plato, Aristotle and Socrates didn’t ask. Galileo and Copernicus didn’t ask. Michelangelo and da Vinci didn’t ask. Jesus and Buddha didn’t ask.  Children don’t ask and neither do most athletes and musicians. In other words, our most creative people never stop to question “What am I going to get out of this?” Rather, they seek out wonder, engagement and discovery first, then let the returns fall where they may.

For the vast majority of human history, no one asked the ROI question, but today, it seems to be the only question our culture is asking. Deathly afraid of suffering a loss and the career-wrecking side-effects that might go with it, we calculate our expenses and potential profits out to the most distant decimal point. And as our vision narrows, we become blind to every big-picture perspective that makes human life worth living. The ancients, of course, would be mystified, then appalled. Whatever happened to the traditional values of character, virtue, courage, creativity and community?

There’s another problem that’s implicit in our compulsive use of the ROI question. It assumes not only that return should be measured, but also that it can be measured. But this is a wildly speculative, even crazy, assumption. Most dimensions of the human experience and organizational performance simply cannot be measured by any available metric. Sure, you can measure corporate profits or the number of widgets sold, but the vital intangibles that contribute to individual health and organizational function remain, well, intangible. No matter how hard we squeeze our precious numbers, there is simply no way to accurately measure things like engagement, creativity, innovation, pro-social working conditions, sustainability or beauty.

Of course, there is a time and place for the ROI question. We can’t simply do art all the time, flying on impulse and dancing to the tune of our creative muse. It makes sense to ask some practical questions before jumping into big, risky projects. The problem comes when ROI becomes the only question we ask, when our interest in profit eclipses every other consideration on the table. This singular focus on measurable return transforms every human enterprise into an ugly calculation, stripping away everything that humans normally hold dear. At this point, the ROI question is no longer sensible; it becomes an instrument of stupidity. Clearly this is one more case in which “the dose makes the poison.” In moderate doses, the ROI question is valuable or benign. But past a certain tipping point, accounting actually becomes a disease, a form of mental and cultural pathology.

The time has come to turn the ROI question back on itself and see what we come up with. That is, what are the social, environmental, cultural and spiritual returns on the ROI question itself? Or, to put it in the language of the bean counters, “What’s the ROI on the ROI question?”

Fortunately, we don’t need a calculator to figure this one out. The “return” has been disappointing at best. Our myopic focus on measureable profit has given us a cold and sterile world of spreadsheets and strip malls, industrial agriculture and poisonous food products, hyper-efficiency, big data, stress, anxiety and depression. The ROI question has strip-mined the human experience and left us with a wasteland of chronic calculation in which every human endeavor is reduced to an exercise in accounting. In other words, the return on the ROI question has been catastrophic.

The time has come to start asking some old questions: What kind of relationship do we desire with the world? How can we live in harmony with the land and with each other? What is the nature of truth, beauty, justice and wisdom?  How can we create healthier people and organizations?

Better questions are likely to give us better results.