PM Articles > Carl Pritchard > Boondoggle or Good Value?

Boondoggle or Good Value?

By Carl Pritchard

The IRS has a conference in Las Vegas. WASTE! FRAUD! The Postal Service has dinner at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse to the tune of over $13,000. ABUSE!

As someone who believes government spending should be watched like a hawk (it is my money, you know), I understand when people get up in arms about these things. But at the same time, I always take pause when these news stories crop up, as sometimes, an "obvious" boondoggle is not a boondoggle. Sometimes, it's a sound investment.

Before I went out on my own, I worked for one employer who was a notorious penny-pincher. Imagine my surprise when he invited the entire executive team to his favorite resort in Longboat Key, Florida. It was a bit of a shock, and seemed somewhat lavish for his reputation. I later learned that he had negotiated a very good deal, had checked on the costs of travel to the location, and had basically figured out he had options.

  1. Have the annual manager's meeting at a boring hotel in a major metropolitan area
  2. Have the annual manager's meeting at a lavish resort where his personnel could feel pampered

Cost? About the same.

He made the right choice.

Selling the Tough Sell (in Omaha)

I've been intrigued over the past four years, working with to host annual "Seminars at Sea" aboard cruise ships. Attendance is always light, but I get to take my wife on an annual cruise and we get a chance to see a little more of the Caribbean. It's a great opportunity for us. But it's an even better opportunity for the few who take advantage of it. The package (cruise, training, cruise food, cruise accommodations) for three days of training is well under $1500. Go to a training event in Cincinnati or Austin, and in three days, the price tag will definitely be higher. But oddly enough, most organizations would rather send their folks to Bismarck than out on the high seas. Why? Appearances.

Sadly, appearances actually drive many business decisions relating to travel. Organizations don't want to send Bob to St. Maarten and St. Thomas for fear that they'll look like they're squandering company dollars. It doesn't matter that Bob will save the company about a thousand dollars in the process. It doesn't matter that Bob will actually enjoy the experience and feel rewarded. It's all about what it looks like.

In project management, we need to be the fiscal champions of our organizations. That doesn't mean that we have to be boring pedants that only glom onto cheap-looking opportunities. It does mean that we have to build the business case first.

The business case is best built through comparative analysis. If you have the opportunity to treat your team well, first consider what the same meeting/training/opportunity would look like in Omaha. It's not that I don't consider Omaha a resort location, but it's not the first place that pops to mind when you hear "boondoggle." It also doesn't come across as exorbitant, inappropriate or wasteful. It comes across as the heart of America. It comes across as hard work. It comes across as "in earnest."

So price out the event in a heartland kind of community, including room, board, facilities, travel and all of the other considerations that go with the package. That's now the official baseline. See if you can sell that. If management buys into Omaha, you own them. Suppose with room, board, and travel, the total for a four-day trip is on the order of $1500. That's not unreasonable. Add in the price of the convention, symposium, workshop or seminar, and it's probably nearing $3000.

"Destination" experiences tend to be able to leverage both volume and early participation to keep costs down. Almost universally, the cost for destination events will be on a par with, or lower than, the Omaha experience.

Sold on Omaha? Off to Barbados!

Granted, this sounds like a "bait and switch," because it is. But it's a positive experience. Once management understands and agrees to the cost of a business or educational experience in the heartland, offer the alternative. In this instance, the dialogue should go something like this:

Me: I found another site for the conference that's less expensive.

Boss: How much less?

Me: About a third to half off.

Boss: Wow! That's pretty impressive. Are the same dates available?

Me: Yes. And better still, the accounting will be easier. It's a package deal. Meals, rooms, conference facilities, everything.

Boss: Where is it?

Me: Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Boss: Oh, that's great. Much warmer for a winter event.

Me: Just one catch, though.

Boss: What's that?

Me: The conference would sail from Lauderdale, with stops in San Juan, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten.

Boss: A cruise?? You expect me to approve a cruise!!??

Me: No, I expect you to approve a conference, where you cut the corporate costs by more than a third and where you show your employees how much you value them and where you come out a hero with the staff and the Finance department.

And this is where they likely say no.

And you say, "I'll start calling hotels in Omaha and setting up dates."

And they say, "Give me a day or two to think about it."

Sadly, most organizations that miss out on amazing opportunities do so out of fear. Rather than arming themselves with clear information about how they can better spend a corporate dollar to benefit everyone from the shareholders to the worker bees, they opt for image over substance -- with a willingness to have an image of an organization that isn't sufficiently creative to create winning opportunities for staff, management, and shareholders alike.

The objections are inevitable and predictable.

"It's not my job to give people vacations in the middle of a recession!"

"I give them a Christmas party each year! That's reward enough, isn't it?"

The short answer is no. The best stewards are not boring. The best stewards are creative. They know how to find ways to serve corporate and personnel interests. And we should remind them that even if the optics are bad, the potential savings are amazing. (And besides that, on a cruise ship or all-inclusive resort, they're a captive audience -- they almost have to attend the conference.)

It's time to get out of the rut and get creative. But you have to do the homework first. And to the senior managers who see this as one big boondoggle? Do the math.

Related Resources
Looking for a test case? Carl's 2014 PDU cruise sets sail in April. You can get more details and registration information, as well as plenty of fodder to help you build the case, in this document (PDF) or on Carl's website at Elsewhere on ProjectConnections, check out Cinda Voegtli's thoughts on the high project return on leisurely learning and some unconventional ideas for project team rewards and recognition.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Hooray!!!! Someone else in the world that can do math AND has the chutzpah to take it to management and demonstrate the difference between management and leadership in one fell swoop. Great article. I've seen this played out more than once and it's always about 'how we look' rather than 'LEAD, FOLLOW, or GET OUT OF MY WAY!' approaches to managing a workforce.

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