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Book Review: Expensive Sentences


“We can spot an Expensive Sentence by its impact. Expensive Sentences limit information. They end conversations. They create urgency and isolation. They reduce options. They steal choice.” (p. xviii)

Expensive Sentences: Debunking the Common Myths that Derail Decisions and Sabotage Success by Jack Quarles (Ideapress, 2017) accomplishes two amazing things in one highly readable book:

  1. It provides procurement with an approach to managing ‘creep-in’ costs that has the potential to become viral on its own, as long as procurement is ready to lead the way, and
  2. It serves as a benchmark (in my opinion) that procurement’s brand image has made huge strides – and that we are being rewarded with a book that is both savvy and cool.

Expensive Sentences is about the power of spoken language. You may not be aware of it, but some of the most common sentences aired in your company on a daily basis are costing you money.

Textbook examples of Expensive Sentences include “They’re the only ones who do that,” “This time is different,” and “we’ve come too far to change now.” These sentences, and the many others that are described in the book, are defeatist, passive, and counter-productive. But don’t worry – this book isn’t a scold. You’ll laugh more than once while reading the case examples. You’ve heard most of these sentences before, and you have probably even said a few of them yourself.

Expensive Sentences will teach you how to recognize, flag, and respond to Expensive Sentences. These statements are so common, and used so habitually, that getting them under control is an ongoing effort. Like recovering from any other kind of addiction, battling Expensive Sentences requires commitment, patience, and communication. The effort should be procurement-led, but for real impact it must be rolled out organization-wide.

But what does the idea of Expensive Sentences have to do with procurement’s brand image? This book looks like something that might have rolled off the presses at HBR – inside and out. It is bright, conversational, and isn’t afraid to leave some space for the reader to think. It is hard to put together a procurement book that isn’t academic or stodgy (trust me on that…) but Quarles has done it. On pages 8-9 there is a fascinating chart that shows the effect of temperature and commitment on troop count during Napoleon’s march to Moscow in 1812-1813. It is absolutely fascinating and shows the enormous – and sometimes devastating – impact of having the courage to change direction. I appreciated this and the many diverse third party references, from the Classics to the Simpsons, as I read the book.

In terms of impact, the upside is huge. We’re talking about increased savings, reduced leakage, more supplier options, and broader supplier-driven value. The best part of all is that procurement won’t need to do additional work. Halting the effect of Expensive Sentences allows us to increase the potential from the work we are already doing by cutting all of the little, invisible strings that are holding us back.

My primary take-away is that the best response to an Expensive Sentence is a good question (and maybe a smirk depending on who you are talking to). The goal is to discern real needs from perceived requirements, separating legitimate reasons to incur additional cost from fake ones. I recommend buying this book and carrying it with you to meetings. Not only will it serve as a reminder to be on the hunt for Expensive Sentences, it will also provide natural opportunities to discuss them internally. Oh – and it will make you look ‘oh so cool’ and ‘in the know’ if you position it casually on top of your notebook and papers.

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