If we get one thing out of the Trump presidency, it is that we’ll all have a ton to write about. This week’s comment from Donald Trump that a $4B refresh on Air Force One is stupid hit a note with me because I’ve seen a lot of brain-dead decisions over the years. A few months ago, I made one myself. Trump apparently believes that the plane will cost $4B; planning for this new airplane has already cost something in the neighborhood of $170M.
Now, I think a small child looking at these numbers would raise their hand and say, isn’t that stupid? Yet, in government and the private sector, these things happen all the time. Firms and government purchasing departments pay exorbitant sums for things that they don’t even need. When I worked as an internal auditor, I was surprised at how often I ran into things that, for lack of a more descriptive term, were just brain-dead, yet some otherwise smart executives signed off on them.
I once advocated for a department whose sole responsibility was to go around the company and locate and destroy practices or reverse decisions that were obviously stupid. Let me give you some other examples of “stupid” and how they came to be.
The Disney Monorail to the L.A. Airport
The proposed Disney monorail situation is one of those things that I think defines stupidity. Walt Disney, back in the 1950s, proposed a monorail from Disneyland in Orange County to the L.A. airport. Back then, freeways were basically four-lane roads and getting to and from the airport was a different kind of nightmare than what we face today. The cost of the monorail project was estimated and budgeted at $3M, a lot of money back then. To make sure that it was a good decision, a number of studies were done, which eventually concluded that the monorail would not be profitable and shouldn’t be built. Those studies cost $9M. So, for three times the cost of building the monorail, the committees determined one should not be built.
Now, this likely happened gradually, because even an idiot would not propose a $9M project to determine if a $3M project was profitable. But what seemed to happen over several years is that study after study provided the wrong result, so they kept going until they got a result they wanted.
The mistake was not setting a hard ceiling on the research. At no point should the cost of studying a proposal cost more than what the actual project costs, otherwise you might as well build it and effectively test live.
One of the most fascinating and stupid projects I ran into was in Micronesia. The U.S. had funded a hotel there for visitors and it was to be built out of reinforced concrete. After the walls were up and the hotel was nearing completion, someone wondered how the bathrooms and lights were going to work, given that there was no plumbing or wiring. It seems that no one who had signed off on the budget or plans had bothered to have them reviewed by a competent architect. The end result was that all of the plumbing and wiring had to be run outside of the building and core drilled at incredible expense in order to get basic utilities to the rooms. This not only blew out the budget, but it resulted in a building that was ugly and wasn’t sealed against weather or insects properly. That’s not good in a climate that destroys metal in months and where a lot of the insects enjoy people as a delicacy.
This fiasco largely resulted from everyone assuming someone else had done the appropriate review.
The Presidential 747
When the 747 was first designed, in the 1960s, the plane was a showcase of American ingenuity. It was created at a time when Boeing believed all existing large commercial planes, including the 747, would soon be replaced by supersonic alternatives. It was conceived to be a short-lived aircraft and a good chunk of the design consideration went into making it possible to easily convert it into a cargo plane as a result.
The first 747 Air Force One was commissioned in 1985 and it began service in 1990. Back then, electronics were big, bulky and anything but solid state. Portable computers were in the 20- to 30-pound range and no one had even heard of the internet. It was the end of the cold war and a big, slow-moving plane made sense, largely because hand-held, ground-to-air missiles and the idea of using airliners as weapons were both unlikely.
Currently, the needs and technology levels are much different and the risks have changed massively. In many cases, the emergence of holography, high-resolution video conferencing, and the near elimination of latency has made alternative forms of attending meetings viable and far easier to secure. In 2024, when the proposed new planes come into service, will they be needed? Also consider that the core design at that point will be 50+ years old, at the beginning of an expected 25-year term of service.
In short, my point is that not specifying something that anticipates the future, is smaller, faster, and better defended, with an electronic conferencing fall back, is stupid; there is probably every chance that the president of 2024 will need something vastly different than a 747, largely because they should already have something vastly different today.
We desperately need more people who will step up and point out stupid.
Wrapping Up: Recognizing When Decision Making Goes Awry
Several things jumped out at me from the Trump comment. Clearly, the idea of an outdated design for a future plane, but also the fact that an incoming president with no political background, who hasn’t even been well briefed on the threats that face him, immediately grasped that this idea was stupid.
I’m not immune to making stupid decisions, either. A few months back, I took the European Delivery option on a new Mercedes. I realized, once on the trip, that this meant I paid for the car early, got the car late, and went on the most expensive and worst vacation I’ve ever taken. And, all of the information telling me that was the case was available before I left. I just failed to think it through.
We could all save our firms a ton of money if we just looked for and worked to eliminate the incredibly stupid things folks are doing because they didn’t read what they were signing, they assumed someone else did the needed reviews, or they just accepted decisions as well-thought-through and didn’t challenge them. And if these examples don’t hit you, remember the next time you get on a plane that the Samsung Galaxy 7 ban announcement resulted because someone thought it was smart to forgo adequate design testing and rush a phone to market. How smart do you think they feel today?
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+