What the Bay of Pigs and Challenger disasters have in common: groupthink
In 1960, newly elected President John F. Kennedy was briefed on a plan to invade Cuba put in place by his predecessor, Eisenhower. Despite a team of ~50 expert advisors (who Kennedy referred to as “the most experienced and smartest people they could get”), the actual mission (now known as the “Bay of Pigs”) was a disaster, and Kennedy was humiliated on the world stage.
How could an operation that had been planned by two presidents and countless military experts have gone so wrong? Despite numerous advisors harboring doubts about the mission and privately expressing their beliefs that it would fail, none spoke up when Kennedy asked for feedback, believing they would be viewed as weak or unpatriotic in the eyes of both Kennedy and their colleagues. A senior advisor, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., would later say, “Senior officials were unanimous for going ahead. Had one senior advisor opposed the adventure, I believe that Kennedy would have canceled it. No one spoke against it.”
In 1986, a similar breakdown in communication cost the lives of seven Americans when the Challenger space shuttle broke apart shortly after launch. Once again, there was a group silenced by fear, this time Morton-Thiokol engineers silenced by both executives at the contractor and senior managers at NASA, who desperately wanted to launch. It was as though “officials had been playing a game of broken telephone, with the result that incomplete and misleading information reached NASA’s top echelons.” While engineers from Morton-Thiokol expressed valid concerns and asked for a delay, top management officials at the firm chose to ignore these concerns and told NASA they were good to launch. If all stakeholders had been able to access the dissenting opinions, perhaps tragedy could have been avoided.
Both of these cases led to massive changes in how the respective parties made decisions. Kennedy required that his top advisors function as a unit without hierarchy, where dissent was encouraged and participants were asked to function as “skeptical generalists.” He also began requiring that discussions happen without him in the room at times so as to encourage contrarian opinions from those who may not have voiced them in his presence. This served him well later in his presidency when faced with the Cuban Missile Crisis, skillfully navigating a tense situation that could have led to nuclear war.
In the wake of the Challenger explosion, NASA similarly began work repairing the communication pathways that had broken down -- resulting in the implementation of rigorous processes like Analytic Hierarchy Process, currently being used to determine which life support systems should be used on manned missions to Mars.
Ideally a company’s leadership won’t have to go through a geopolitical catastrophe in order to establish good decision making processes. Condorsay offers research-backed decision-making software based on pairwise comparison to help highlight dissenting or minority voices, foster team alignment, and provide clarity to key stakeholders. The notes feature gives everyone the chance to make their true feelings heard; pairwise comparisons allow participants' unbiased opinions to shine through.
In both cases above, leaders didn’t hear opinions from people on the ground. Perhaps if Kennedy’s team had used Condorsay, decision-makers would have seen concerns about the flaws in the mission plan. NASA decision-makers would have seen dissent from concerned parties and delayed the launch. Perhaps better conversations would have led to better decisions, saving lives in the process.