When All the Options Are Bad


Reaching a good decision when facing a complex and uncertain situation is one of the fundamental roles of a leader. Typically, this requires a series of well-run meetings that progress the discussion until a workable solution is identified and embraced. However, despite this being a common process in organizational life, most people would say it seldom operates smoothly and frequently leads to less optimal solutions and lukewarm implementation.


Bob Woodward has made a career of writing about the inner workings of the White House. His reporting is so in-depth, you wonder how he manages to capture the details and dialogue so vividly. He re-creates the meetings dealing with the most sensitive and secure information as if he had recorded them. His approach to interviewing the participants after the fact also highlights how people may remember events differently.


Regardless of the accuracy, Woodward’s writings provide a case study on decision-making and meeting management. This is especially true in his book, Obama’s Wars which focuses on developing a strategy for the war in Afghanistan after Barack Obama becomes president.  The Afghanistan situation is complicated and complex. There are multiple risk dependencies, a variety of strong and diverse opinions, and incredibly high stakes. It takes months of data gathering, assessments, and meetings before Obama is ready to make a decision on how best to end the war.


It turns out that meetings at the highest levels of government concerning the most serious issues contain similar dynamics to the meetings we have all attended. Too often meetings are more about persuading others rather than opportunities for open dialogue. In the Afghan war strategy discussion, it becomes clear early in the process what everyone’s position is. As the months and the meetings go by, everyone tends to seek better ways to make their arguments stronger. While the differing views provide new ideas, people deviate little from their initial positions. Rather than broaden their perspectives, everyone either rejects new information or tries to interpret the new information to align with their argument.


Woodward also notes the tendency for some participants to make long-winded arguments as well as those that simply overexplain and repeat themselves. He contrasts that with those who seem to stay quiet to read the room before offering their opinions. Both approaches create frustrations from different participants. Another dynamic is the forming of coalitions and divisions around perspectives and personalities. Differing ranks and status among participants also influence how ideas are presented and received. In other words, the merit of an idea is often determined by who said it and at what point in the discussion rather than the idea itself.


As the final decision maker, President Obama is clearly the primary audience for each person’s argument. He leads the discussion through a variety of questions and observations but in doing so often reveals his perspective. Perhaps his biggest frustration comes from a desire to find a new path forward and to be presented with a broader range of options. His request to his military commanders for more options largely results in slightly modified versions of their initial request for a certain number of additional troops. Since the military commanders feel like they are already compromising with their preferred option, they have little incentive to provide other options.


While much of the meetings feature some of the same dysfunctions and frustrations of meetings in general, Woodward’s reporting does offer some best practices. One is the focus on clarity. Early in the process, there is an emphasis on establishing a common objective and vocabulary and it takes a while to agree on terms like “defeat,” “disrupt,” and “degrade.” The participants recognize that clarity is important not just for the internal discussions but for how decisions will be communicated to a broader constituency.


The process has both a desired deadline and space for careful deliberations, allowing information and insights from previous meetings to be contemplated and refined. Also, including a variety of voices in the process provides the president with a range of perspectives.


Finally, once a decision is reached, the focus is on clarity, implementation, and tracking progress. Obama provides a detailed written version of his decision. Like most complex decisions, nobody gets everything they want and some are convinced the plan (any plan) will not work. During the final meeting in the decision-making process, he asks each of the principles and commanders if they support the decision. Each participant is given the opportunity to express their opinions. They all declare their support for the decision Obama has made.


Since the book was written in 2010, we also know “the rest of the story.” Many of the obstacles identified in the process are the very ones that could not be overcome. The prediction by some of Obama’s advisors that the Taliban would eventually prevail, and Afghanistan would return to its pre-2001 state turned out to be painfully accurate.


Sometimes all the options are bad, but decision makers have to trust their process to give them the information they need to make the best decision they can. With an intentional process, team members may be less enthusiastic about the final choice but still believe they have been heard and understand how they can best implement the decision.