How John F. Kennedy Changed Decision Making for Us All

Late in the evening on October 18, 1962, Attorney General Robert Kennedy squeezes into the front seat of his car. With him is the CIA director, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a driver. Six other high-level officials crowd into the back seat. The packed car secretly speeds off from the State Department to the White House, where President John F. Kennedy waits.

What are all those hotshots doing jammed into a car that evening in Washington? It's all part of a plan for President Kennedy to make the most critical decision in his life—how to respond in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
And as it turned out, the way President Kennedy orchestrated and led the decision-making process made all the difference. For that, he leaves a huge legacy in management.

But at the time, success was hardly assured.

Eighteen months earlier, he'd made arguably the worst decision he ever made, to support an ill-conceived covert operation to unseat Fidel Castro, known today as the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Yale psychologist Irving Janis used the debacle to coin the term "groupthink," which refers to a psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses dissent and appraisal of alternatives.  Historian Arthur Schlesinger, who took part in that decision process, later wrote that "our meetings were taking place in a curious atmosphere of assumed consensus, [and] not one spoke against it."
And yet, as I write in more detail in Collaboration, after the Bay of Pigs Kennedy brilliantly retooled his group decision-making process. He ordered a review (keep in mind that not even the military was doing formal after-action reviews at the time) and subsequently instituted four changes to how his top team would make critical decisions:
  1. Each participant should function as a "skeptical generalist," focusing on the problem as a whole rather than approaching it from his or her department's standpoint.
  2. To stimulate freewheeling discussions, the group should use informal settings, with no formal agenda and protocol, so as to avoid the status-laden meetings in the White House.
  3. The team should be broken into sub-groups that would work on alternatives and then reconvene.
  4. The team should sometimes meet without Kennedy present, so as to avoid people simply following his views.
The whole idea was to solicit diverse viewpoints, stimulate debate, explore options, probe assumptions, and let the best plan win on its merits.
Then, on the morning of October 15, 1962, President Kennedy and his team learn that the Soviets are placing nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba—missiles that a few minutes after being fired would kill eighty million Americans.
That very morning, top military brass insist on an immediate and massive military strike to take out the missiles. But this time, instead of debating only the one plan, they follow the new approach, which calls for exploring options. So someone suggests an alternative—a naval blockade to force the Soviets to remove the missiles.
As the new process unfolds, Kennedy instructs his brother to lead a thorough deliberation of the two alternatives. The group of more than a dozen men meets in an unassuming office at the Sate Department and shuttles secretly back and forth to the White House (hence the ride with ten men stuffed into the car that evening). Frank discussions ensue. "There was no rank, and in fact we did not even have a chairman…the conversations were completely uninhibited," Robert Kennedy would later recall.
As time passes, they deploy another new approach: they divide into sub-groups, with one developing a position paper arguing for the military strike, the other for the blockade. They then swap papers, dissecting and criticizing one another. In this way, the groups are able to probe decisions and surface pros and cons. Two days later, the group presents the fully developed alternatives to President Kennedy, who chooses to pursue the blockade. The blockade is successful, and prevents a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union.
How often do we see leaders learn from their mistakes this profoundly?
President Kennedy's redesign of his decision making process has had enormous influence on today's management thinking on leading teams. The idea of instilling candid debate to avoid groupthink has become a guiding principle in many business school classrooms and boardrooms.
It would be easy to assume that we'd always made high-stakes decisions through a structured method of seeking different options and debating which was right. But that would be wrong; first, someone had to decide to invent it.