On pigs, nukes and inclusive decision making

Imagine your last crisis at work. Maybe it was a big recall of your product because of a malfunction. Maybe your technological debt crashed the system and you had to refactor the code. And maybe your new product, that you thought everyone needed, is getting chilled reactions from users and investors are starting to breathe down your neck. Either way you need to decide on the next right course of action to fix the situation.

A photo of a missile site in Cuba

Inclusive decision making is a well-established paradigm in all spheres of management and leadership. If you are a CEO, team leader or entrepreneur you surely are already aware of this and how beneficial it can be for your project, drive creativity and employee work engagement. Or, if you are John F Kennedy, using inclusive decision-making to help save the world from nuclear disaster and World War III during the Cuban missile crisis. In this article, we will try to understand the different approaches Kennedy took, create useful tools for your next workplace crisis and help make your next big decision smarter.

The failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs taught Kennedy his first harsh lesson of lack of inclusion during his first months on the job. In 1958 Cuba experienced a revolution. Fidel Castro came to power after overthrowing the United States friendly neighborhood dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and created close ties with the Soviet Union. After the revolution Kennedy’s predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower gave 13 million dollars to the CIA to do what they do best, train counter-revolutionary guerillas to overthrow the Cuban government.

After Kennedy’s election, the CIA authorized this operation. They had everything figured out. With about 1000 trained men, airborne paratroopers and planes, the plan for the invasion of Cuba was all set. What could possibly go wrong? Well, in war as always in war, apparently everything.

Endless amount of books have described the failure

The CIA failed to bomb the Cuban airfields, the ground forces received a heavy firefight on landing, the ammunition on the ground was insufficient and the CIA was sure that the president would authorize American air support, which was not even discussed in the planning of the operation. Sound familiar? Many managers experience, what Freud would call, wishful thinking. We expect our plan outcome to be perfectly aligned with our preparations, but reality has a different idea. Kennedy, in this case, and other powerful world leaders, in many other cases, experienced the same wishful thinking.

After 4 days of fighting the operation failed with more than 100 soldiers killed and 1000 captured. Cue Kennedy’s famous quote: “The first advice I’m going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.” It may have been little bit harsh but it is an excellent example of the problem of relying on one field of expert knowledge alone in a complicated situation. In our dynamic world, no one has all the answers all the time. If you only know how to operate a hammer, without any doubt an important tool, you may be able to build a chair with it, but maybe if you brought additional tools, it would make the job much easier?

Kennedy’s administration faced another crisis a year later. In 1962, Fidel Castro asked Nikita Khrushchev, the Leader of the Soviet Union, to station Nuclear missiles in Cuba to make sure the Bay of Pigs operation would not repeat itself.

Kennedy’s generals, as expected, came to him with a new bulletproof plan on how to stop the stationing of the missiles by bombing half of Cuba and then invading it. Déjà vu? Violent actions were the military’s hammer and it was the only tool they knew how to operate. As with all professions, you see the world the world through the glasses of your expertise.  A web developer sees the world through their technological glasses, the lawyer through their legal, and the general through the scope of their rifle.

Kennedy had learned his lesson from the Bay of Pigs events and decided to be far more inclusive in his next decision by bringing some more ideas to the table. He created what later became known as EXCOMM, a committee of experts from different fields of expertise to discuss different courses of action. In the end they came up with several alternatives:

  1. Do nothing and let the missiles stay there
  2. Put diplomatic pressure on the USSR to remove the missiles
  3. Threaten Castro with an invasion
  4. Full-scale invasion of Cuba
  5. Air strikes on Cuban bases and missile silos
  6. Blockade of Cuba
Kennedy and his staff discussing the missile crisis

It is easy to see how the inclusion of many different experts brought a variety of approaches to the table as opposed to the single approach of violence the CIA adopted in the bay of pigs.

The joint chiefs of staff were unanimous in agreeing that the Soviets wouldn’t start a war if the US invaded Cuba. But, Kennedy understood that killing Russian soldiers and destroying half of Cuba wouldn’t be taken with silence from the Russian side. Doing nothing would not initiate a war but would bring about a change in the balance of power between the superpowers. And the blockade option is technically an act of war.

Of course, each course of action would have its own pitfalls. and may not have had a definite positive outcome in reality. However, by simply discussing these ideas with individuals with different perspectives, more clarity was brought to the situation.

Kennedy’s first step was to create a blockade on Cuba. But, in order for it not to be considered an act of war, he used, with the help of his lawyers, the Rio treaty to his advantage, claiming the blockade as a quarantine. This act helped ensure that the legal system would be on his side. Not willing to risk the violence which may ensue from the blockade, Kennedy had forces ready for action in Cuba if things escalated. A backup plan is always a useful tool to have.

Parallel to these active measures, a diplomatic approach was also adopted to negotiate the removal of the missiles with Khrushchev. However, the situation kept escalating and a Russian preemptive nuclear strike was on the table. To counter this, Kennedy had to take a risk and increase the DEFCON level.

Meanwhile, the blockade and Kennedy’s firm stance started to work and Khrushchev proposed to remove the US missile station, Jupiter from Turkey in exchange for the removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba. This seemed to Kennedy as a fair deal, and he took it.

Kennedy resolved the Cuban missile crisis with a more peaceful means and avoided a direct confrontation with the USSR and quite possibly World War III. He did this by encouraging different approaches, perspectives and by being more inclusive with his staff. This time he didn’t just use the army as his only tool, he included his lawyers, speech writers and diplomats. His toolbox now contained more than just a hammer. All experts had their input and together helped resolve the situation during different critical points during the crisis. In Kennedy’s view, the solution to a problem is a series of pivot points rather than a single event. When handling a situation, we should not automatically take the seemingly most obvious solution to a problem, in this case military power. Rather, we should include about 2 or 3 other solutions, whether it be legal, technological, marketing or any other expertise, to help resolve the specific pivot point in the path to our resolution.

Bringing diverse minds to the same table is not a simple task. Different minds have different opinions and often try to bring their own opinion forward while marginalizing others. Hence, inclusive decision making can be a complicated process.  To orchestrate a smooth open discussion with a group of professionals with different mindsets is a hard task, even if you are the most powerful person in the world as seen in the case of John F. Kennedy.

This all comes from our limitation as human beings and the want for our voice to be heard over others. To overcome those limitations we created Ment.io, an AI-powered decision-making platform.

Ment.io is automating and managing, with artificial intelligence, all the non-relevant background noises that so often distract us from the real information we need. You can think of Ment.io as your own EXCOMM for workspaces.

The key to resolving a crisis can lay in the hands of different people at different times and it is the job of responsible managers to be as inclusive as possible.

Ask not what you should decide for your workers, ask how your workers can help you decide.



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