The conference is going well. People are engrossed in conversations at their tables. Someone proposes an idea that is new and different. Others at the table get excited. Soon, the blank white sheet is covered in multi-coloured lines, words and actions, plans emerging for the future of the group. Excitement is high. People are inspired and ready to take actions to make a difference at work. The next day, the euphoria and optimism from the day before continues. People discuss what was great and inspiring and possible actions they can take forward. Another day or two goes by. Soon it’s a week later and the swirl of business-as-usual takes over. The conference inspiration becomes a dim light in the distance. Eventually a senior leader or executive asks: Why did we spend all that money to bring people together? What was the return on investment?

This past week, I facilitated one of these conferences where a cross-section of an organization comes together to work on issues that matter. Every time I facilitate or host a day like that, I am left wondering and worrying: Have I participated in a process that has raised false hopes for people? Have I been part of enticing people to suspend reality in favor of envisioning transformation when I know that yet another change event will surely come that will seem to setback any progress made? How will I respond to the return on investment question when it is inevitably asked?

Then I wonder, is return on investment the right question to be asking for interventions in support of people strategies? People strategies, focused on supporting and developing people’s capacity and connection to their workplace in service of shared goal achievement are all founded on the intangible stuff of human dynamics. This human dynamics hinges on how each person’s interior motivations and personality preferences interacts with those of others, and with the resulting environment created by people’s interactions in the context of organizational norms. Ultimately, the dynamics created will be expressed in relationships, interpersonal, group and organizational, and will inform how each person describes themselves in relation to the culmination of those relationships –‘the organization.’ When we think about organizations as this web of relationships then, how would we measure the ‘return’ on these relationships?

In our personal lives, the response to every version of the various deathbed, obituary or tombstone exercises always centre around meaningfulness, legacy and relationships. It is intuitively clear that in general, we humans value most of all the quality of the relationships we will leave behind. We would not, faced with our own imminent death, be concerned with counting the financial returns we have garnered from each relationship we have to determine who should join us at our deathbed. What would it look like, if our ‘return’ strategy was simply to build strong relationships and assess how well we are doing with our people strategies by the quality of those relationships? This would require trusting that when our relationships are strong, we will reach desired goals. For example, when people are engaged with their work relationships and therefore their organizations, they are willing to go above and beyond to solve that organizational problem. They will keep looking for solutions at the end of their ‘workday’ on that run after work, in the shower, in spontaneous conversations with a friend outside of work. There is no price that can be put on this.

But how do we do this you ask? I ask in return, what do you do to build, maintain and develop those strong relationships that you have now? While context matters and will make a difference in each case, the basics of communications, quality time, shared goals and purpose, commitment, mutuality and a margin of error with forgiveness are likely the same. In the example of goal-focused conferences that I started with, I wonder whether the question of return will arise if adequate post conference follow-up, communication, ongoing commitment to the work and the willingness for people to make and learn from mistakes along the way were all present. Somehow, I believe that if all that were in place, the outcomes would be achieved and we wouldn’t need to count the costs of the relationships that were in the room. I believe that in organizations, we often do know what is required for success in people strategies, we just need the will to do so. And even though I still worry about unfulfilled expectations when the required conditions for successful outcomes do not materialize, my trust in the fact that no meaningful human connection is wasted keeps me facilitating.