Former Secretary of State Robert Rubin, having come from a background in merger arbitrage, believed no decision could be made with certainty about the outcome. Everything was a probability. So he made sure to always look carefully at every angle of an issue—not just pros and cons but also second order effects, reactions, contingencies, and so forth. I wrote about his book In An Uncertain World in an earlier post.

An implication of this mindset is that he made a deliberate effort to hear all points of view. He describes the process at Treasury during the controversial discussions in 1995 on whether to rescue Mexico from looming default:

Our Treasury meetings were characterized by searching questioning and debate, all for the sake of the fullest possible exploration of alternatives. This was a discussion, rather unusual for Washington, in which rank hardly mattered. A thirty-four-year-old deputy assistant secretary and Treasury Secretary both felt fully entitled to express their views. That informality reflected my experience both on Wall Street and inside the White House about what kind of discussions tended to be the most illuminating and productive. So if someone, particularly someone junior, who was often closest to an issue, seemed to be holding back, I tried to draw out his or her view. What mattered to me was the merit of the argument, not the title of the person who made it.

Meetings produced the best results if those who disagreed with the accepted view were encouraged to speak out. So if a meeting seemed to be moving toward a consensus, I would make a point of soliciting dissenting views. Disagreeing with me was socially approved rather than discouraged. If no one disagreed, I would encourage someone to play the role of devil’s advocate. I might say, “This is where we’re heading, but we need to know the contrary view so we can consider it.” And I, or someone else, would take up the other side. Just as important as the freedom to disagree, I think, was that this group of high-powered intellects in large measure avoided investing their egos in their arguments. It was a common search for the best answer in the midst of a worsening crisis.

In other words, Rubin actively took steps to avoid groupthink. In his 1972 book Victims of Groupthink, Yale psychologist Irving Janis, who conducted the first major research into the groupthink phenomena, analyzes major historical decisions by American presidents. He was puzzled reading Arthur M. Schlesinger’s chapters on the Bay of Pigs in the John F. Kennedy biography A Thousand Days. “How could bright, shrewd men like John F. Kennedy and his advisers be taken in by the CIA’s stupid, patchwork plan?” he wondered.

He was also struck by the fact that almost the same group of men involved in the Bay of Pigs decision making process were involved in the Cuban Missile crisis, where good decisions were made.

The entire book is incredible, at times gripping, reading not just for the insights but for the historical detail as well. 

The Bay of Pigs invasion, “a perfect failure”

In a nutshell: Kennedy approved a plan put together by the CIA to train, arm, and deliver to Cuba a group of fourteen hundred Cuban exiles with the goal of overthrowing the government. It was a complete failure. Two hundred invaders died, and almost all the rest were captured. Worse, everyone knew the U.S. was involved. Aside from the very negative reactions both domestically and internationally, the event set off a chain reaction that led directly to the Cuban missile crisis.

Janis describes how the President and his advisers approved the invasion based on six assumptions, each of which was wrong. Worse, when they first discussed the plan, if only they had probed these assumptions, they would have learned how shaky they were:

  1. No one will know that the U.S. was responsible for the invasion of Cuban.
  2. The Cuban air force is so ineffectual that it can be knocked out completely just before the invasion begins.
  3. The fourteen hundred men in the brigade of Cuban exiles have high morale and are willing to carry out the invasion without any support from U.S. ground troops.
  4. Castro’s army is so weak that the small Cuban brigade will be able to establish a well-protected beachhead.
  5. The invasion by the exile brigade will touch off sabotage by the Cuban underground and armed uprisings behind the lines that will effectively support the invaders and probably lead to the toppling of the Castro regime.
  6. If the brigade does not succeed in its prime military objective, the men can retreat to the Escambray Mountains and reinforce the guerrilla units holding out against the Castro regime.

Janis describes the groupthink hypothesis: “members of any small cohesive group tend to maintain esprit de corps by unconsciously developing a number of shared illusions and related norms that interfere with critical thinking and reality testing.”

He goes on to describe the illusions and norms:

  1. The illusion of invulnerability.
  2. The illusion of unaniminity.
  3. Suppression of personal doubts.
  4. Self-appointed mindguards.
  5. Docility fostered by suave leadership.
  6. The taboo against antagonizing valuable new members.

The Cuban missile crisis, “an extraordinary counterpoint”

Within a year of the invasion, the Soviet Union had struck a deal with Cuba to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, just ninety miles from the U.S. coast, reducing the warning time the U.S. would have had in the event of a launch from fifteen minutes to two to three minutes. It was estimated that the missiles represented a third of the Soviet Union’s arsenal and had the ability to kill eighty million Americans.

Again, despite having five of the key men on the decision making committee involved in both decisions, the process was completely different, meeting all of the major criteria of sound decision making.

The decision makers:

  1. thoroughly canvassed a wide range of alternative courses of action;
  2. carefully weighed the costs, drawbacks, and subtle risks of negative consequences, as well as the positive consequences, that could flow from what initially seemed the most advantageous courses of action;
  3. continuously searched for relevant information for evaluating the policy alternatives;
  4. conscientiously took account of the information and the expert judgments to which they were exposed, even when the information or judgments did not support the course of action they initially preferred;
  5. reexamined the positive and negative consequences of all the main alternatives, including those originally considered unacceptable, before making a final choice; and
  6. made detailed provisions for executing the chosen course of action, with special attention to contingency plans that might be required if various known risks were to materialize.

Janis clarifies that by meeting the criteria the decision was a good one independent of the outcome, that while the Bay of Pigs invasion was a bad outcome and a bad process and the Cuban missile crisis was a good outcome and a good process, process and outcome shouldn’t be confused. Process matters independent of outcome because high quality processes tend to lead to good outcomes—but not always. 

The group discarded its initially preferred plan of threatening a surgical air strike because of the possibility that the Soviet leaders might not back down, leading to a rapid escalation. After days of debate, they settled on a naval blockade, which “had the advantage of being a low-level action that would serve as a nonhumiliating warning and would still ‘maintain the options,’ as [Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara put it, permitting a gradual, controlled escalation later on, if necessary.”

Nonetheless, they acknowledged the risks, a key characteristic of a good process, and the first morning the blockade went into effect, as a Soviet submarine was moving into position between U.S. ships and two Russian freighters the Navy expected to board, Robert Kennedy wondered, “Was the world on the brink of a holocaust?”

He noticed that his brother was showing extraordinary signs of emotional tension: His face seemed drawn and haggard, drained of all color; his hand went up to his face to cover his mouth. The two brothers stared at each other across the conference table.

Robert Kennedy described a sense of dissociation, as memories of the worst catastrophes of their lives flooded him:

For a few fleeting seconds, it was almost as though no one else was there and he was no longer the President…Inexplicably, I thought of when he was ill and almost died; when he lost his child; when we learned that our oldest brother had been killed; of personal times of strain and hurt. The voices droned on, but I didn’t seem to hear anything.

Janis describes how “similar reactions have often been observed in combat soldiers and surgical patients at moments when they are momentarily overwhelmed with the realization that real danger is at hand.”

Kennedy’s changes to the process

The better decision making process followed in the Cuban missile crisis was the result of active efforts by the President. He made four major explicit changes. He:

  1. Redefined participants’ role. Each participant was expected to function as a skeptical “generalist”—not just as spokesmen for their agency but each as critical thinkers. Kennedy also assigned the two men he trusted most—Robert Kennedy and Theodore Sorensen—as intellectual watchdogs, charged with relentlessly pursuing every bone of contention and making sure no issue was treated superficially.
  2. Changed the group atmosphere. No formal agenda was imposed on the group. Outside experts were invited and carefully questioned about the grounds for their views. Realizing these outsiders may feel compelled to remain silent, they were deliberately asked to give reactions during the discussions.
  3. Instituted meetings of subgroups. The committee would be broken into two groups, with each working on a policy decision independently, after which they would reassemble to debate and cross-examine each other.
  4. Left the group leaderless at times. Kennedy would often excuse himself during the preliminary phases when the full alternatives were being discussed for the first time. Secretary Rusk or Robert Kennedy would assume the lead but still be careful not to become too influential a voice.

Amazingly, when Kennedy first learned that Khrushchev had been lying and that the weapons in Cuba were not purely defensive, his initial reaction was for an air strike. Yet, he deliberately instructed the committee to consider all alternatives. Robert Kennedy in particular urged the group, “Surely, there was some course in between bombing and doing nothing.”

The committee seriously discussed ten alternatives, ranging from “do nothing” (despite knowing that Kennedy had eliminated this option) to “launch an all-out invasion to take Cuba away from Castro.”

Janis outlines four elements present in the deliberations, what he calls “vigilant appraisal—the antithesis of groupthink.”

  1. Acknowledgment of grave dangers even after arriving at a decision.
  2. Explicit discussion of moral issues. This is my favorite part of the story. Robert Kennedy recounts: “We spent more time on this moral question during the first five days than any single matter…We struggled and fought with one and another and with our consciences, for it was a question that deeply troubled us all.” 
  3. Reversals of judgment. People changed their minds, quite often in the case of many of the members. 
  4. Nonstereotyped views of the enemy. The group viewed “their opposite numbers in the Kremlin as no less rational than themselves and assumed that [the Soviet’s] choice of action would be selected from a broad spectrum, ranging from conciliatory to belligerent, depending largely upon the words and actions of the United States government.”

There’s incredible wisdom here, most of all the benefit of explicitly thinking about the process of making decisions. 

The world is only getting more complex, with crises that are not only dramatic in scope but slow moving in nature, making them more difficult to assess and address.  Yet, it seems our decision making capabilities are worsening, not improving.