When it is right to throw money at the problem

throwing money at the problemWe all are familiar with situations when decision-makers keep throwing money at the problem instead of trying a structural solution that could potentially be much more beneficial to the system. The examples are too many, especially in our austere times.

Naturally, we tend to be critical of such wasteful strategies, but a story told to me last week by an older friend about his time in the Military reminded me that sometimes solving the situation by spending more resources may be more beneficial than attempting a structural decision.

Several decades ago, my friend was doing staff assessment tests for the Air Force. Even though an HR position in the military may seem unimposing, his work was actually seen as very important by everyone involved, because it included the mid-course assessment of pilot trainees. As training a combat pilot is a very, very expensive endeavour, it’s very important to know as soon as possible who would be the guys to stay the whole length of the course, and who is to be told to try next year. Because all this happened long before the age of computers and the Internet, the only way to deliver the results of the assessment to the decision-makers was by a hard copy.

However, there was small problem.

The assessment took place at the air base where the course was taking place, but all the people who made the decisions were sitting at the Air Force HQ. So every time after the assessment results were obtained, the HR specialist had to take them in a hard copy and personally deliver to HQ, for the case any explanations would be needed. While this on itself was not a real problem, the absence of a vehicle to take him there was. You see, as an HR staff member my friend did not have a designated car and a driver that most commanders have. He was not an integral part of the hierarchy, so he did not have access to any perks that came with it.

So every time the results had to be delivered to HQ, his direct commander had to beg other commanders who had a designated car and a driver to take him to the HQ. Think about how your CEO would react to such a request, and then double it, and you’ll have some estimation of the amount of political bickering this situation caused. Everyone was interested in receiving the results as soon as possible, but no one was ready to share on a regular basis due to perceived loss of status.

It would seem easy to think that the best thing was to try to convince the system that my friend’s job was important enough to the level that he should have had a designated car, but in reality this was not the case, as the assessment results had to be delivered only about every three months or so. On a personal level, even if his commander firmly believed that a car should be found for the job – he didn’t have one to spare.

However, he had something else instead. He was a commander of a whole AIR BASE, which meant that even though he didn’t have cars and drivers to spare, he had PLANES and PILOTS. So his decision was, even though to fly the assessment results by a plane is much more expensive than to drive by car, it’s the most logical thing to do because he was using a resource which was in his full control. Thus, in this specific case it seemed that adopting a much more expensive, but a much more lasting solution was the logical things to do!

This is the story, and for me it was all about the difference between how things are supposed to be done and how they are done in reality. Everyone understands the importance of saving costs, but if a single critical problem undermining the whole project could be solved by throwing a certain amount of money at it, may be it is exactly what should be done.

Think about it 🙂

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2 thoughts on “When it is right to throw money at the problem

  1. Hi Anya,

    Are you saying that your friend started driving a plane to deliver these reports? That is odd!

    In any case, he could have always rented a car…

    PS: I thought this post was mainly about throwing money at a project management problem…

  2. You are completely right: this was a post about throwing money at
    project management problem and this situation is such a good example
    exactly because it’s so odd :).

    What is important to remember here is that this happened four decades
    ago, at the height of the Cold War, when Armed Forces could not use
    civilian resources as easily as they do today; so renting a civilian
    car was not really an option. Think about it as about a project where
    all the resources are given and final, and the only freedom PM has is
    how to use them

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