What do these historic events have in common?
- U.S. Invasion on North Korea
- The Bay of Pigs
- Escalation of the Viet Nam War
- The Hostage Rescue in Iran
- The Challenger Disaster
- The Bush Administration’s Invasion of Iraq
This list represents some of the biggest decision-making disasters in history.
A few weeks ago, the famous Washington Post White House author, Bob Woodward wrote an article entitled “Military thwarted president seeking choice in Afghanistan” which was all about the critical nature of decision-making. What greater decision can there be than deciding the fate of tens of thousands of young U.S. men and women as they are sent into war-torn Afghanistan? The article chronicles the process that President Barrack Obama undertook in finally deciding to send 30,000 additional troops as opposed to the 40,000 (which came highly recommended by his military leaders) in December 2009.
Obama discovered after months of negotiating with national security officials and being in the middle of a war entering its ninth year that three simple questions could still NOT be answered:
- What is the mission?
- What are we trying to do?
- What will work?
In other words, what is the intended consequence in Afghanistan? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
As it turned out, Obama’s military leaders wanted to provide a solution (40,000 new troops) without defining a strategy – the answers to those three simple questions (obviously not so simple!). Obama asked for a strategy (the answers to those questions) and asked for options, but the inability to answer those questions kept leading back to NO viable options except for an option that was UNacceptable to Obama.
Having been well versed in decision-making disasters from the past (see above), Obama chose to follow a more structured decision-making process. He knew he had many intelligent key stakeholders at his disposal and wanted input, alignment, and buy-in from all of them. He actually made a meta-decision – he decided how to decide by answering the following:
- Who needed to be included in the decision-making process (stakeholders)?
- What role would each stakeholder play in the decision-making process?
- How would the decision be made – what criteria would they use to decide?
- When did the decision need to be made?
Obama did a thorough stakeholder analysis to determine who needed to be included in the decision-making process. He realized that it was critical to include both military and civilian leaders. He also determined each stakeholder’s role in the process; keeping the final decision for himself. He then determined the decision criteria and insisted on being provided options by his advisors, which was critical. Finally, he did not allow himself to be rushed into making a quick decision (his military leaders tried to do just that) which allowed him the opportunity to consider many alternatives.
At the end, he “sold” his decision to all his stakeholders and insisted that they put their full support behind it. Obama said, “I don’t want to have anybody going out the day after [the speech] and saying that they don’t agree with this.”
Time will tell whether or not this was the right decision for the U.S. BUT what we can glean from this article is the importance of having a disciplined approach to decision making. Even if all of Obama’s stakeholders did not necessarily agree with the final decision, it appears that they did respect the process. Right before the decision was announced Obama gave Robert Gates, his Defense Secretary, a final opportunity to dissuade him saying, “Can you support this? Because if the answer is no, I understand it and I’ll be happy to authorize another 10,000 troops, and we can continue to go as we are and train the Afghan national force and just hope for the best.” Gates did not take Obama up on his offer.
This is just one example of the importance of decision-making. This is the one skill that most leaders are never trained in, even though it is the most critical part of their job. It is one of the elements of our AEIOU model, which stresses that the best infrastructure (people, process, tools, and technology – the consonants) in the world is useless without the glue that holds it together (Adoption, Execution, Implementation, Optimization, and Utilization – the vowels that turn the consonants into a language).
Some of the most important events in history required effective decision making and yet we spend little to no time on developing the skills necessary to make good decisions. The recent deaths in the California wildfires have been attributed to poor decision making by the firefighters. The good news is that this has led to the addition of decision-making to firefighter training. One of the most critical decisions that affects all of us is that of a jury. Yet numerous articles have been written about the fact that our present system does nothing to provide jurors with the tools to decide the fate of a human life.
We need to think about this key skill beyond our politicians and public servants. How about executives of any kind? Supply chain leaders? Sourcing teams? This should be a critical leadership skill that is purposely taught to all professionals – let’s provide the vowels to complete the language!