Tough decisions

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By Peter Kemball

If you think your business requires tough decisions, you would agree that they are trivial compared to the late President John Kennedy’s during the 13 days of the Cuban missile crises. The world teetered on the balance of massive nuclear explosions and a wrong decision would have killed millions of people in Canada, the USSR and the United States. Nor was this the only time. On at least two occasions, military officers faced the apparent prospect of incoming missiles. For them the decision to retaliate or not had to be made in minutes. In one case, the officer wondered why there were only five US missiles on his radar screen. The answer was that he was looking at five birds!

Recently Ted Sorenson, a key advisor to Kennedy during the missile crises, set out his view on how a leader makes tough decisions in the face of conflicting advice. Speaking in Ottawa and Toronto a week or so ago, Sorensen advised executives to picture their options creatively. For example, Kennedy didn’t call it a “blockade,” which would have meant that any ship sailing towards Cuba would have been turned back. He labelled it a “weapons embargo,” thus allowing key non-military supplies to reach Cuba and make it clear to the world that Cuba was not the enemy. A nice byproduct was avoiding the alienation of people elsewhere in the Caribbean whose lives would have been disrupted by a blockade’s automatic triggering of wartime marine insurance rates. Reach out for support, Sorenson advises. Kennedy sought cooperation from all nations. And communicate directly with your opponent rather than through agents.

Above all, Kennedy was a realist. When the crisis had passed, an aide urged him to use his status to intervene in the Sino-Indian War. “But you are 10 feet tall,” the aide said. “Oh, that will last a couple of weeks,” Kennedy replied.

Technology executives may face just as much uncertainty as Kennedy did, and need to apply the same creativity to their problem solving.

Peter Kemball is CEO and founder at Acorn Partners, an innovative firm that helps B2B SMEs finance their success.

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