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Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers [Paperback]

Richard Elliott Neustadt , Ernest R. May
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

25 Jan 1988
Offers guidance on the use of historical analogies in clarifying a problem, defining basic objectives, and making a decision.

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Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers + Enemies of Intelligence: Knowledge and Power in American National Security + Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War (Cornell Studies in Security Affairs)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: The Free Press (25 Jan 1988)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0029227917
  • ISBN-13: 978-0029227916
  • Product Dimensions: 23.5 x 15.2 x 2.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 309,131 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading for all policy makers 3 Feb 2011
A set of cautionary tales, mostly from the Carter administration, of how decision makers misunderstand historical lessons and then a few stories of policy makers who got it right (Kennedy and Reagan).
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
56 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An indispensable aid for decision makers. 11 Feb 2003
By T. Graczewski - Published on
As an avid reader of history, I've long struggled with putting my learning to use in day-to-day situations, whether that be in evaluating critical business decisions or in helping me better observe and understand the world around me. On the one hand, there is the familiar aphorism attributed to George Santayana that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. But, on the other hand, each situation is truly unique, and the use of historical analogies is clearly fraught with pitfalls. "Thinking in Time" addresses this conundrum and provides a sound basis for using historical knowledge intelligently and responsibly.
To overcome the temptation of using history incorrectly, the authors put forward a specific process for decision makers in crisis situations, and they use case studies to highlight successes and failures in the use of history as guide to decision making. The case studies are all drawn from domestic and foreign policy scenarios, but the lessons are applicable to any organization (private sector, non-profit, etc.).
The authors' decision making methodology may seem a bit didactic or formulaic at first, but it is meant to be used with the greatest flexibility. The heart of the process is to establish a system of critical inquiry and resist the temptation to jump to the "options phase" of decision making immediately. Rather, the authors argue, focus clearly on the situation at hand and confirm the intended objective. This can be started by listing what is known, what is unclear and what is presumed about the situation. Next, analogies will come to mind or will likely be invoked for advocacy (intentionally or otherwise), so quickly highlight all the "likenesses" and "differences" between the present situation and the historical analogies. This should further clarify the present situation and the intended objectives
The authors suggest other tools that, while useful, are a bit more cumbersome than separating the known from the unclear from the presumed in any given situation, which I know do religiously at work. Some of the other techniques covered include laying out a timeline of the event, including major concurrent events along with the details; asking journalistic questions (where, how, why, what, etc.) for each major event along the timeline; setting odds for given "if - then" scenarios; explicitly laying out what kind of information (new "knowns") would change your various "presumeds"; and for various options asking "For the objective of X, Y is the best option because...."
In closing, "Thinking in Time" is one of the ten most influential books I've ever read. If you are in a leadership position in business, government or even the local lodge, this book can make you a more effective leader. The only thing I regret about reading "Thinking in Time" is that I didn't do it sooner.
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clever, Useful Guide to Presenting Intelligence to Policy 8 April 2000
By Robert David STEELE Vivas - Published on
This book is an essential point of reference for understanding the analogies and other devices that decision makers use to evaluate information.
The bottom line is both straight-forward and scary: policymakers see everything in terms of their own (usually limited and largely domestic) historical experiences, and they interpret what they are given by intelligence professionals in the context of their own personal perspectives.
This has several implications, and I regard this book as one of perhaps five that are long-term essential building blocks for the new craft of analytic tradecraft being devised by the CIA's Kent Center and Jack Davis:
1) Intelligence is remedial education for policymakers. There is no getting around this. While the authors are much more diplomatic than I could ever be, the raw fact is that most policy makers are very loosely-educated and generally do not have a high-quality international affairs education or substantive experience dealing with foreign affairs or even national affairs. They are local lawyers, businessmen, "friends of the President," etcetera.
2) Objective, internationalist intelligence will always be in conflict with subjective, domestic politics unless--and this is the other new theme just now emerging, years after the author's published their work--there is a public intelligence community and the citizen-voters are receiving sufficiently compelling intelligence they can use to demand and vote for early and thoughtful action instead of in extremis reaction.
3) The book breaks new ground in establishing the importance of history, not only for drawing intelligence conclusions (understanding ethnic conflict, for example, is best done in the context of 200+ years of prior history), but for translating, converting, interpreting foreign events, threats, and opportunities in domestic historical terms that can be more easily absorbed by very busy policymakers.
I do not mean to suggest that the authors are condescending. Far from it. They take a very difficult and complex matter, that of speaking truth to power about foreign issues, and offer it up in a very sensible and understandable form.
The best of the students using this book for coursework will understand that it is a "keeper," of lasting value as a future reference, worth returning to from year to year for a refresher on the value of history in both understanding and communicating.
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A necessary study for those who would either govern or lead 15 Oct 2000
By John Kirby - Published on
Suburb work - Neustadt and May do us a great service in that they provide a process and framework, not only for governmental decision-makers, but for anyone struggling with complex decision making. The authors, Harvard professors both, use comparative case study methodology to develop their thesis - that being "Seeing Time as a Stream." They also remind us that continuity is not everything and that "Human experience also includes discontinuity, sudden, sharp, and hard to foresee, if foreseeable at all." A suggestion: Read Chapter 13 first - then proceed to the detailed studies that make up the majority of the text. This is a necessary study for those who would either govern or lead in modern society.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Powerful System for Using Historical Examples 1 May 2005
By Walter H. Bock - Published on
For years, Richard Neustadt and Ernest May taught a course in Decision Making at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. It must have been one heck of a course.

The subtitle of this book is "The Uses of History for Decision-Makers." That could actually be broadened a bit to something like "The Uses of Precedents and Analogies for Decision-Makers."

Remember when we were debating going to war in Iraq? How many times did you hear the precedent of Viet Nam invoked?

And, if you're old enough, remember Viet Nam? How many times did you hear about Munich?

How many times in business have you heard a colleague invoke a historical precedent to justify a particular course of action?

We use historical precedents and analogies all the time. Most of the time we use them as if history repeats itself. It doesn't.

Mark Twain's aphorism captures best what really happens. "History does not repeat, but it does rhyme." This book will give you tools that you can use to sort out what's the same (the rhymes) and what's different and then use your analysis to make better decisions.

The authors introduce you to methods that will help you sort things out in all kinds of different situations. They teach you about separating "facts" into known, unknown, and presumed. They discuss analyzing precedents that you're about to base a decision on in terms of likes and differences from the current situation.

By itself, no individual idea or tool is unique. None of this is rocket science. But the authors give you a systematic application of common sense and proven techniques. That system gives you power.

There are lots of little "sidebar" points as well. For example, there's the Goldberg Rule.

That rule tells you not to ask, "What's the problem?" Instead ask, "What's the story?" I picked up that technique from this book when I first read it years ago and I've used it ever since in my consulting work and research. Try it. You'll like it.

There's also Dr. Alexander's question, which: "What fresh facts, if at hand, by when, would cause you to change your presumption?" Instead of presumption, you can insert direction, or recommendation. This simple question forces decision-makers in a group to look at underlying assumptions and to look at when those assumptions need to be changed. It, too, is simple and powerful.

The techniques in this book will definitely help you sharpen your decision-making skills. But there's an added benefit for you if you're a history buff. You'll enjoy the anecdotes and analysis of historical events, such as The Bay of Pigs, where one of the authors was an advisor.

There are a lot of books on decision-making. This is the only one I'm aware of that deals clearly and systematically with the use of precedent and historical analogy.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The only book on learning from history 24 Aug 1998
By Stewart Brand - Published on
The authors teach a highly influential course, "Reasoning from History" at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The book has great case studies of real decisions based, sometimes well, sometimes badly, on historical precedent. A wonderful book.
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