President Kennedy asked this question after the failure of 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. This “supposedly secret” invasion by 1400 former Cuban exiles, sponsored and planned by the CIA, resulted in the capture of 95% of the invasion force and global humiliation for the USA. No wonder Kennedy was upset. Many years of soul-searching and research by American academics and the military have provided some answers. One of the first was provided by a psychologist called Irving Janis, the man who coined the term “Groupthink”. In the model developed by Janis he identified a set of prior conditions that lead to poor decision making. These include lack of impartial leadership, the impact of peer pressure, and group cohesiveness (lack of diversity). In this article I will focus on the last of these. It is notable in the key meetings prior to the Bay of Pigs invasion that the middle-aged white men, from similar schools and backgrounds, who sat around Kennedy´s table all accepted the assumptions presented by the CIA. This included the assumption that, in the worst case foreseen by the CIA, the invasion force would be able to retreat to the Escambray Mountains despite the 80 miles of impassable jungle and swamps that lay on the route from the Bay of Pigs. Janis identifies that a lack of diversity in the decision making group significantly contributes to this lack of challenge. If you want a good decision, it should be challenged, and different points of view are critical. It is notable that when Kennedy was facing the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 he made sure to invite “outsiders” (external experts) into the relevant meetings.
Despite the implications of this for gender equality in business, progress has been disappointingly slow. Too many boards are still dominated by white middle-aged men drawn from narrow social groupings, and too many of those that are more diverse are so just because of “tokenism” – the diverse elements are supposed to assent rather than challenge. However, the benefits are real – the science hasn´t changed since the days of Kennedy and Janis. A study conducted between 2015 and 2017 by the Cloverpop organization into 566 business decisions made by 184 different business teams found that having more diverse decision making groups (measured by age, gender and geography) greatly increased the quality of the decision making. Janis’ findings from the 1960s still stand. Furthermore, the Cloverpop study found that decisions made by non-diverse groups and then implemented by diverse teams resulted in the worst business performance. It is not enough to have diversity in your teams, it is vital that the diverse elements be actively involved in the decision making process. “Tokenism” will harm your business, not help it.
There is an interesting footnote to the Bay of Pigs story. The invasion force made up of Cuban exiles was known as Brigade 2506. In December 1962 the US Government provided 53 million dollars of non-military aid to Cuba in exchange for the return of the 1183 captured members of Brigade 2506. To this day, the Brigade 2506 Veterans Association remains a significant part of Florida society. In October 2016, for the first time in their history, the Brigade 2506 veterans endorsed a Presidential candidate; Donald Trump, largely as a reaction to the Obama administration´s Cuba policy. Trump´s win in Florida was one of the key events in the 2017 Presidential election. You can bet that Kennedy didn´t mean for this to happen either….