How do you make decisions? By that I mean, when facing a material
strategic (a/k/a “big”) decision, who do you involve and what is the process you
use to decide? (Don’t pretend to blanche at the word “process”—lawyers
are all about process, as you darned well know.)
Courtesy of Michael Roberto (Professor, Harvard Business School)’s Why
Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer (Wharton School Publishing:
2005) [at p. 32], I present this quite remarkably enlightening table
comparing the methodology behind JFK’s disastrous Bay of Pigs decision
with his universally-recognized-as-brilliant Cuba Missile Crisis decision. Evidently,
JFK learned something between 1961 and 1963: You could
Bay of Pigs
Cuban Missile Crisis
Role of President Kennedy
Present at all critical meetings
Deliberately absent from initial meetings
Role of participants
Spokesman/advocates for particular departments
Skeptical generalists examining the “policy problem
as a whole”
Deference to experts; adherence to rules
Minimization of status/rank differences; freedom
from rules of protocol
Participation and involvement
Extreme secrecy—very small group kept “in
the know.” Exclusion of lower-level aides and outsiders
with fresh points of view.
Direct communication between JFK and lower-level
officials with relevant knowledge and expertise. Periodic
involvement of outside experts and fresh voices.
Use of subgroups
One small subgroup, driving the process. “The
same men, in short, both planned the operation and judged its chances
Two subgroups of equal size, power, and expertise. Repeated
exchange of position papers and vigorous critique and debate.
Consideration of alternatives
Rapid convergence upon a single alternative. No
competing plans presented to JFK.
Balanced consideration of two alternatives. Arguments
for both options presented to JFK.
Institutionalization of dissent
No individual designated to occupy the special
role of devil’s advocate.
Two confidants of the President playing the role
of “intellectual watchdog”—probing for the flaws
in every argument.
This is not to criticize or to laud JFK—as I will remind you for
the 179th time, this blog is apolitical. It is, rather, to contrast
two nearly diametrically opposed decision-making processes, one with
an outcome deeply embarrassing to the nation and costly in lives, the
other potentially saving our planet from nuclear ruin, and to gently
suggest you think about which model your actual decision-making process
No people have been killed in preparing this post.