It's not uncommon to spend more time talking about a purchase then the actual purchase. There are two very common, good reasons to do this.
- Item X is $100 and would work
- Item Y is $500 and would work better.
Some time needs to be spent to figure out if item Y is worth the $400. This is specially true if a policy or rule says you can only get Item X or Y once in it's lifetime.
Take a office printer. Lets say policy says you can only buy one office printer.
You find one for $1,000, it seems to do most of what everyone wants. It prints, has decent queue management, etc.
I find one for $5,000, it does what the $1,000 one does but has lower cost of ink, and faster PPM. In addition is allows email to print functions, and has a better supported network driver.
There will be some time spent in figuring out if this is the proper device. This can be even more true if, say your clients prefer one brand, or sales thinks the "prestige" of having one brand is worth it.
A lot of intangible things go into a purchase. It's not always just cost.
In a “proper” business, how would this be handled? Would they have a policy like, “If you can solve a problem for less than $X without having to start a conversation, do it”?
"If you can solve a problem for less than $X without having to start a conversation, do it?" Absolutely 100% no. Remember money may not even be the primary concern. I have never seen a business where someone could just buy something flat out without some level of conversation, outside two exceptions.
Petty Cash - A lot of business have a petty cash fund. This fund is designated to cover odd ball expenses that have a short time frame. Even purchases from this category get reviewed though. It just happens after the fact.
Consumables - Businesses try to reduce these, but there are a bunch of purchases that happen, typically without review, for replaceable, or consumable items. Someone broke their chair and a new chair is needed. Then from the furniture fund go buy the replacement chair. No need for a conversation. These purchases are also reviewed, but ahead of time. Everyone needs chair A, make sure to have 2 spare Chairs on hand. When you use a chair, just go buy a new chair A.
Other then that, every purchase, small or large gets some kind of approval. Yes that means you spend $500 deciding if a $2 pen is better then a $1 pen.
Typically there is a (single) decision maker. Everyone states their case about why X is better then Y then the decision maker makes a decision. Letting everyone make their case is important though, and that takes time.