Understanding alternatives

During the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union came close to war. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to challenge U.S missile supremacy by secretly installing medium range missiles in Cuba. Informed about this, President John F. Kennedy had a decision to make: The US would either respond too strongly and live with possibility of nuclear war or respond too weakly and allow the Soviet Union influence to intensify.

During deliberations with his cabinet, several options were considered ranging from invading Cuba and destroying the missiles to registering strong protests and demanding removal of the missiles. It was after examining all possible actions that president Kennedy settled on an action that was neither too aggressive nor too submissive: he ordered the U.S navy to start a blockade of Cuba, inspecting Soviet ships to determine whether they carried missile-related cargo. At the same time, he initiated dialogue with Prime Minister Khrushchev informing him of the blockade.

The above example demonstrates an important decision-making process in any negotiation. Last week we explored the importance of BATNA which describes the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. The key word here being ‘alternatives.’

Alternatives are important in any decision-making process as this allows one to make a credible selection after examining the consequences of that choice. In the case of President Kennedy, a few things are apparent:

  1. He had many possible actions
  2. He considered the likely consequence of each action
  3. He evaluated each set of consequences
  4. He chose the action with the most desirable consequence

Kennedy’s many possible actions are the alternatives here. He could have bombed the Soviets. He could have done nothing. He could have asked the Soviets to stop their aggression. All these were alternative courses of action. Each alternative has a consequence. This is called the outcome. By being submissive, America would have been ceding supremacy to the Soviets. Any negative consequence or outcome means that the said alternative is not a good one.

An alternative means a possible action. Outcome comprises all possible consequences. To conclusively determine the impact of each outcome, it is crucial to attach values to the possible alternatives. These are called payoffs. In the case of president Kennedy, talking to president Khrushchev and inspecting the Soviet ships had the best values attached, and no surprise they produced the desired results.


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