Will America Survive?: Critical Thinking JFK-Style

Forty nine years ago today, President John F. Kennedy stood before the US Congress and the world and said:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

This was perhaps one of the most elegant mission statements of all time.

It set forth not only the objective but the important parameters and criteria (time and place) by which a successful mission would be determined.

After all, as difficult as it was in 1961 to send a man to the moon, that was the relatively easy part. Embedded in his call to action was the far more daunting task of sending a man from the moon to the earth.

And by the way, dead men need not apply.

The returning astronaut had to not only arrive on the moon's surface but get back alive.

There is no wiggle room in his challenge.

He didn't say get a man half way to the moon, or get a man in orbit around the moon or get a man as close to the moon as possible.

He said get there and back safely.

...which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight.

If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all.

The reason for this call to action was not to advance science, though advance science it did.

Four years before this speech, the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial moon. In the ensuing years, the Soviets had been first to put a man (and woman) in earth orbit, and first to have a cosmonaut walk in space.

The Soviets were going to the moon.

In the battle for the hearts and minds of the world, the Soviets were going to the moon as an unequivocal declaration of the ultimate superiority of Communism over Capitalism.

And if they did so with the US playing the role of
bystander, those nations of the world who had not yet decided which side of the geo-political chess board with which to ally themselves would have something to think about.

No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

...if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.

In his Moon Mission speech, John F. Kennedy exhibited something we haven't seen much of lately.

He thought through a problem -- found embedded within it an opportunity -- then articulated clearly the objectives and criteria of realizing that opportunity with great latitude as to how the goal would be eventually be accomplished.

Mission Accomplished

The real and tragic misstep of George W. Bush's so-called
Mission Accomplished speech on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, was not that the Iraq War would grind on for the better part of a decade before degenerating into an interminable police action. Though that indeed was a real and tragic misstep.

The problem was that Bush never articulated a clear mission in the first place. There was a plan to defeat Sadaam Hussein which was easily achieved by the superior might and resources of the US military. But there was never a plan to reestablish stability in the region.

Bush/Cheney had a plan to get to the moon but never considered getting back as an issue.

That's the equivalent of saying:

I believe that we should send a man to the moon and when he lands we should celebrate and then hope to God that he can either figure out a way to get back again or that he take a liking to the place and decide to stick around.

Health Care Reform

By the same token, Health Care Reform was hotly contested for months in the US but there was never a clearly defined mission for the legislation.

Without precise understanding of what it was that really needed to be accomplished, in all the compromises that were made --
all legislation involves compromises -- the journey was a twisty one.

If you don't know what the goal is, you don't know which compromises are acceptable and which are not.

The resulting bill made for a historic signing ceremony but in its aftermath no one was really sure if we were better off or not.

This is the equivalent of John F. Kennedy saying:

I believe that we should go somewhere and once we're there, people should believe that our journey has been a significant one but wherever we end up I hope that our contractors and lobbyists approve.

The Wisdom of Peter Drucker

Today's leaders could learn a lot from the late strategist Peter Drucker and his five ingredients for successful decision-making:

1. Problem rationalization.
The clear rationalization that the problem is generic and can only be solved through a decision that establishes a rule or a principle.

2. Boundary conditions.
The definition of the specifications that the answer to the problem has to satisfy, that is, of the "boundary conditions."

3. The right thing to do.
This is the thinking through what is "right," that is, the solution that will fully satisfy the specifications before attention is given to the compromises, adaptations, and concessions needed to make the decision acceptable.

4. Actions.
The building into the decision of the action to carry it out.

5. Feedback.
The "feedback" that tests the validity and effectiveness of the decision against the actual course of events.

Also See:

Slouching to the Stars: In Defense of the Final Frontier

One Giant Leap...

Behold a Pale Horse