There’s always a cost

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Tim Purcell
  • 50th Operations Support Squadron commander
My 5-year-old son recently lost his first tooth and was ecstatic to buy something with the money he received from the tooth fairy.

A couple days later, he counted out a few dollars from his piggy bank and asked if we could go to the store to buy a toy. On the way to the base exchange, he enthusiastically rattled off a half dozen toys he planned to buy with his money. I broke the news his $5 would probably only buy one toy so he had to figure out which toy he wanted most.

I smirked as he painstakingly considered whether to buy a Star Wars activity book or a new action figure -- a serious dilemma. Little did he know, I was trying to teach him an important lesson about prioritization.

As Air Force members, we face similar decisions all the time. There is simply not enough people, time or money to do everything we want, so we must constantly decide where to spend our limited resources in order to most effectively accomplish our dynamic mission. Our budgets are limited, there are only so many hours in the day, end strength is congressionally mandated (and not changing anytime soon), and new facilities take years to construct.

With that said, how do we accomplish all we're asked to do? It starts with the commander's intent (at every level) and leadership's clear priorities, but it doesn't end there. As Airmen, we all have a responsibility to ensure our leadership makes informed decisions. But to do to that, we must arm them with information.

When we're charged with a new priority and we tell the boss "no impact," we're failing to provide him/her with the full site picture. There is always an impact, but it takes some homework to uncover it. If we're going to fund a new project, what other project(s) will be delayed or canceled? If you take on a new task, what other duties are you not able to accomplish (either at all or not as well as you'd like)?

Years ago, my commander wanted to redesign and update the squadron's front office with new furniture, carpet, paint, etc. He tasked the squadron to make it happen. A few days later, I found out other facility improvement projects, some mission critical, had come to a stand-still while our team focused on the front office redesign. I informed him of these impacts and he immediately clarified the front office redesign did not "out-prioritize" our mission critical projects.

What I found interesting and alarming, was several members of our squadron understood the mission critical project delays but did not inform him. Likewise, his expectation was that the front office redesign would not impact our mission-critical projects and assumed squadron members would inform him if it did. We see this quite often; the boss asks us to do something and we do it without hesitation. After all, the boss sets the priorities. We're all wired this way, we just figure out how to get it done.

In our increasingly resource-constrained environment, that "get 'er done" mentality is not always sufficient. As leaders and supervisors, we have to clearly define our priorities. Likewise, as subordinates, we have to inform our leadership so they understand the true costs of the priorities they set.

Think about your own experience. Has your supervisor ever assigned you a hot task that impacted your ability to accomplish another key project or task? Did you explain these impacts to your supervisor? Did you just assume the hot task was now your No. 1 priority and assume your supervisor accepted the impacts? Rarely do we take the time to ask these questions or engage in this dialogue with our leadership, but we should.

Perhaps your supervisor isn't aware that your key project will be delayed. Had he/she understood this impact, perhaps they would have assigned the hot task to someone else or decided the hot task wasn't so hot. Alternatively, they may simply thank you for informing them but decide to proceed with the hot task anyway. Either way, it's your responsibility to help your chain of command make fully informed decisions. If we embrace this mindset, we'll more effectively accomplish our mission, vision and priorities.