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Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers

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Two noted professors offer easily remembered rules for using history effectively in day-to-day management of governmental and corporate affairs to avoid costly blunders. "An illuminating guide to the use and abuse of history in affairs of state".--Arthur Schlesinger.

329 pages, Hardcover

First published March 31, 1986

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About the author

Richard E. Neustadt

17 books13 followers
Richard Elliott Neustadt (June 26, 1919 – October 31, 2003) was an American political scientist specializing in the United States presidency. He also served as adviser to several presidents.

Neustadt was born in Philadelphia of a family of Swiss origin. Neustadt received a BA in History from the University of California, Berkeley in 1939, followed by an M.A. degree from Harvard University in 1941. After a short stint as an economist in the Office of Price Administration, he joined the U.S. Navy in 1942, where he was a supply officer in the Aleutian Islands, Oakland, California, and Washington. He then went into the Bureau of Budget (now known as the Office of Management and Budget) while working on his Harvard Ph.D., which he received in 1951.

Neustadt died in London after complications from a fall. In addition to Shirley Williams, Neustadt left a daughter, Elizabeth, and a granddaughter. His son, Richard, predeceased him in 1995.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 39 reviews
Profile Image for Stefania Dzhanamova.
515 reviews294 followers
February 6, 2022
I have been reading historical works for over three years, and if I have to characterize the past as it is seen through the lens of history, I will say that it is a long string of mistakes committed, or, to quote a childhood fairy tale, "calamities with consequences." I have lost count of the times I, and no doubt many others, have exclaimed about this president or that policy-maker, "Ah, but why did he not learn from history? The same mistakes have already been made before!" Knowledge conveys wisdom; ignorance courts trouble. History has proven two things so far: first, that studying history is an absolute necessity if one wishes to spare himself many headaches in life and second, that no one, or at least almost no one, has ever learned from history.

Why do we never learn history's lessons? The most common explanation is that we humans are allegedly all too stubborn to learn from someone else's mistakes and always prefer to make our own. While this must be so for many people in many situations, it is nevertheless a narrow answer, which cannot be applied to all cases. There are so many instances in life when we rely on the bitter experience of others to determine whether we should do something or not. For instance, the majority of teenagers, thankfully, avoid doing drugs after they hear stories of other teens' lives gone down the drain because of drug addiction. There are, of course, also those who think they can do drugs and avoid the tragic outcome despite being aware that deaths from overdosing are frequent among drug addicts. But the majority still knows better. That is why I believe that inherent human stubbornness is just one aspect of the problem.

Neustadt and May's book led me to the conclusion that maybe we all have not learned how to learn from history. In Russian popular history writer Edward Radzinskiy's words, history is not a teacher; it is a cruel taskmaster. To paraphrase with my words and understanding, history will not be so kind as to guide you until you have learned the necessary lessons; she will let you figure them out on your own, and if you don't, she will punish you. Having heard the saying about history being a teacher a hundred times, many expect her to just offer them all the answers. But by reading a history book or two, or ten will not be enough for them to gain the wisdom they need. History is not How to NOT Repeat My Predecessors' Mistakes 101. Learning from history is an art in itself, it is a special approach that has to be mastered. 

In their book, Neustadt and May outline this approach with explanations and examples. To start learning history's lessons, one has to develop historical thinking first and foremost. Historical thinking in this context is the ability to adapt one's knowledge of history to the particular case one has to deal with, and at the same time to disregard the traditional notion that familiarity with history will be the automatic solution to the problem. A good example the authors offer draws a parallel between Thucydides's history of the Peloponnesian Wars and Lyndon Johnson's decision to escalate the Vietnam War. Athenian ignorance about Sicilian history, psychology, and capabilities was a strong warning for Johnson when he contemplated warfare at long distance with the North Vietnamese, of whom he and his aides knew next to nothing. Why did not Secretary of State Dean Rusk or McGeorge Bundy warn him? Considering their learning, there was no way they had not read Thucydides. Nevertheless, the idea of them invoking his book to President Johnson seems unthinkable. The enormous technological capability of America, and especially American exceptionalism, alienated them from the experience of Athens immeasurably much. The story of some ancients, armed with spears, propelled by oars, maintained by slaves, deprived of electronics, and knowing nothing of air power, could convey nothing to men managing a modern war. It would have not even occurred them to draw on the past and see all the similarities: the blinding, self-imposed sense of superiority, the rash or over-cautious tendencies of generals, the fickleness of the public, the faithlessness or self-interest of allies, and the uncertainty of luck. 

Furthermore, had they seen those patterns, Johnson would have still stumbled into the disastrous Vietnamese conflict. Because although most of us believe that to know history is to know what the decision to make, such knowledge is usually not enough to save us from a calamity. There is the issue of feasibility, as the authors call it. We usually do not choose the circumstances we find ourselves in. We may have learned from history which option is the good on, but what if this option is not available to us at all? By the time Johnson had become President, Vietnam was already a tragedy. He did not have much choice.

Nevertheless, history can be useful and applicable. History is a powerful placement tool. Placement means evaluating stereotypes and making sense of people and organizations – an absolutely essential ability in our society. For instance, the fact that Ronald Reagan voted four times for Franklin Delano Roosevelt can tell us volumes about Reagan's concept of the presidency and the federal government. When he campaigned for President, it must have been clear to all Americans who knew history that he would expand the federal government like FDR had done in the 1930s. Therefore, through placement history can help us predict the future to a certain extent, which also means that it can help us correctly evaluate the options that are available to us and choose the better one. Historical thinking would mean exactly that: analyzing the present situation, finding parallels with a similar case in the past, enumerating and evaluating the options available back then, deciding which one is better, or the best, and possibly applying it to the current situation.

THINKING IN TIME is written primarily for the use of decision-makers, who undoubtedly need to know how to properly utilize history. That is why Neustadt and May put such an emphasis on options and decisions. However, while decision-makers are charged with greater responsibility than most of us, each one of us is responsible for the decision-making in his or her own life. We all have had to make important decisions after evaluating several options. That is why I believe that every person will benefit immensely from reading this book. The authors also made use of the advice of a few notable decision-makers, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Bundy brothers, Dean Rusk, and Theodore Selrensen among them. I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Brandy.
423 reviews20 followers
March 12, 2014
Read this book for a grad class.
In my life I have literally thrown a book across the room maybe two or three times. I threw this one across the room. What a couple of infuriatingly condescending pricks. To think that no amount of intelligent thought goes into decision making at the highest level is ridiculous. Yes there were some pretty significant moments where what someone thought was a small decision turned out to be a huge disastrous one... but this book fixes 0% of that. Your solution is to further bureaucratize the decision making process and rely on people's memories of events to shape current policy? Don't include historians because they'll give you too much information and you'll run the risk of having said historian possibly think of themselves as an "advisor"? God. Go to hell. I am so pissed at having to suffer through this crap that I cannot construct any actual scholarly response. In their attempt to press home the idea that history should be consulted in the decision making of today was completely destroyed by their utter disregard for the fact that there are various interpretations of history that might just be spelled out for you in those pesky history books that "possibly" might help you out if you find that kind of reading "fun." Surprise, turns out not every autobiography is 100% truthful. Utilize the people who are professionally trained to present various interpretations of historical events and not only will you not have to read those tedious books, you might get another, well educated, less invested perspective.
Douche bag.
Profile Image for Frank Theising.
335 reviews26 followers
May 4, 2016
The authors state up front that this is not a book about history but about the uses of history. The book reviews a number of (mostly) disastrous Presidential decisions (Bay of Pigs, Americanization of Vietnam War, multiple blunders by President Carter) and asks the question “if routine staff work had brought into view historical evidence overlooked or not sought, might ‘that’ not have occurred?” (pg xiii). Before diving into these though the author begins with a look at two successes (JFK’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Reagan’s Social Security Reform of 1983). In both instances, the leaders (and their staffs) used history to frame sharper questions and probe the undersides of their initial presumptions. It should be noted that the authors are not arguing for a prescriptive approach that guarantees perfect decisions but merely that “marginal” (and theoretically cumulative) improvements in decision making can be made by a closer look at history. Their primary goal is to get people to avoid the “usual” practice of plunging into action with an overdependence on fuzzy analogies. By stopping to think a second time, decision makers and their staffs are able to question their presumptions and stereotypes and evaluate their potential choices in light of the issue’s own history and possible future outcomes and come to better decisions (33).

A common theme in the book is that analogies are powerful tools that all too easily substitute for critical thought when a crisis arises. Facing a new crisis and the natural drive to do something now, analogies offer a readymade roadmap of actions taken in the past. Unfortunately, few stop to analyze the current situation and its similarity to the offered analogy. They suggest the first step of listing out the KNOWN, UNCLEAR, and PRESUMED points in the current situation. All too often, points are treated as known when in fact they are either unclear or presumed. Second, we should compare the analogy to the present situation, breaking out the likenesses and differences. All too often, our brains are quick to latch on to superficial similarities while ignoring the significant differences (for example the analogy of Korea during Vietnam). Conversely, we are too quick to dismiss valid analogies because of their apparent differences. The primary example given for dodging a bothersome analogy is the French defeat in Vietnam. This analogy was brought up during LBJ’s administration but in such a way as to easily dismiss it. They compared the differences and similarities between France in 1954 (domestic political unrest, fighting for colonialism, etc) and the US in 1965 (US would be fighting against communism, the administration had popular support). Unfortunately, this was a faulty report meant more for advocacy than critical analysis. To do the analysis justice they should have compared the US to France in 1950 BEFORE they had sent a million men into war and began suffering terrible casualties. Such a comparison would have had a lot more similarities than the differences and would have been much harder to disregard out of hand.

The authors provide a few other practical “mini-methods” to help flush out the history of an issue before making a decision to act: Mapping out the historical timeline of a particular issue with key milestones and players involved. Ask “What’s the story?” instead of “what’s the problem?” (this leads you to question what the problem really is instead of jumping to conclusions). And asking the questions a Journalist would ask: 5W’s and How to help flush out the details that might be missing from a superficial analysis. Had JFK done this, many of his presumptions for the Pay of Pigs invasion would have quickly been shown to be false (that it was plausibly deniable, that the CIA had the correct capabilities to pull it off, that the Cuban’s would rise up and overthrow Castro, etc). In contrast, FDR’s enactment of Social Security is hailed as brilliant for his ability to recognize the historical cycle of alternating between the election of liberal and conservative administrations and crafting his legislation to address those challenges.

Another mini-method is to consider the different perspectives of the history at hand (how its viewed by different generations, races, cultures, etc). All too often we act based off of stereotypes that may be largely false. Stereotypes can serve a purpose but by “sophisticating” them (adding different perspectives and filling in some of the blanks) will lead to better decision making. People naturally used the Korean War as an analogy when going into Vietnam but people from different generations viewed it differently. General Maxwell Taylor (former CJCS) remembered the terrible ordeal in Korea and was a staunch member of the “Never Again Club.” General William Westmoreland, a junior officer in Korea, was more enthusiastic to test his mettle as the senior commander in a war thought to be similar to one he had fought already. Dean Rusk, Secretary of State in 1965 had underestimated the Chinese during the Korean War and consequently overestimated them thereafter, exaggerating their menace as expansionists in Vietnam.

The author make a point of the fact that the people we may seek to help or influence all carry their own memories (direct or vicarious) of past events and hold their own beliefs about persistent or recurring patterns. George Ball, whose October Memorandum would very accurately predict what the US experience in Vietnam would be like, was doomed to fail in his attempts at advocacy because he didn’t analyze his audience. His approach “challenged McNamara’s abilities, Rusk’s confidence, Bundy’s honor and Johnson’s pride.”

Overall, the book makes several good points on critical thinking skills that can be applied to staff work and for that its worth a skim. The examples given in this book do help to articulate how to apply their methods but I will warn you that it does tend to get tedious for large portions of the book.
481 reviews16 followers
August 21, 2018
Reflections in History's Mirror

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Reflections in History's Mirror, September 4, 2012

This review is from: Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (Paperback)
Created for their single semester Harvard course for training political decision makers, authors Neustadt and May's historiography focuses on a several recent American turning points and examines how historical precedent either did or could have persuaded those involved. The book intrigues on multiple levels, first as a comparison between similar events, second as a profile of the personalities involved such as Kennedy, LBJ, Reagan and Carter, third as a set of methods for outlining perspectives and finally, even though the book is 26 years old and predates the collapse of the Soviet Union, the subjects discussed such as health care, social entitlements and military confrontation are still relevant today, even more so today in light of the 2012 election cycle.

Any methodology has the benefit of crystallizing the issues. N&M's approach advises the guarded use of analogy. Having selected one of more exemplars they suggest outlining the similarities and differences between them and the current situation. Since our knowledge of events are incomplete, categorize features as "Known", "Unknown" and "Presumed". Instead of describing the problem, an approach that might bias the conclusion, tell the story and tell it from the perspective of different actors. In addition to asked the 5W's, ask "Alexander's Question" - what new information might challenge the "Presumed" items and lead to a different course of action. Additionally they recommend "Placement" - creating a timeline of events in the lives of key players in order to understand their motivation. The technique is nicely summarized at the end of the book.

The case studies are marvelous and include LBJ's intense use of placement as a political tool (allegedly saying: I never feel really comfortable with a man unless I have his pecker in my pocket), the wide range of historic parallels used by Kennedy's emergency cabinet during the Cuban missile crisis, Truman's extensive knowledge of and ability to ability to apply history without which he is easily misread, and the key insight into Reagan that he was influenced positively by the New Deal and had a deep and genuine admiration for FDR's approach to leadership. Another good case was the debate and planning for the 1977 Swine Flu (more recent examples would be the preventative regime implemented to combat SARS or the awareness campaign and infrastructure created in reaction to AIDS) which was strongly linked to the pandemic of 1918 which killed a half million Americans and had more victims by the end of WWI than the war itself! N&M also unkinde to problems of the Carter presidency which they viewed as technically motivated and, beyond the imagery of the 100 day post-election "honeymoon" which resulted in an overly ambitious program that failed to pass, did not employ historic analogy. With his tendency to sermonize they likened Carter to a Baptist preacher, surrounded by like mannered people, who tended to assume the moral high ground rather than constructively engage with others, an example being his treatment of German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Like FDR he engaged in fireside chats with the nation, but whereas FDR was uplifting, Carter's broadcasts were more downbeat and depressing. N&M also focus on the failure of the SALT II disarmament talks and Carter's fractious relationship with leading Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, but surprisingly neglect what was, at least on first inspection, his major success, the Camp David Accords.

I was especially intrigued by the rivalry between Francis Perkins, US Secretary of Labour during the Depression and WW II and Mary Anderson, Director of the Woman's bureau and subordinate to her. The two came from different backgrounds but had similar feminist ideals - yet Anderson made the tactical mistake of alienating Perkins by accusing her of betraying ideals, which she was not rather than working within the framework of finding common goals. The result allowed Anderson to keep her position, but damaged her advancement.

The last chapter is a paean to reading history and makes a number of excellent though ambitious recommendations. The authors tend to favour accounts written by individuals close in time to events, especially autobiographies, ie Ulysses S. Grant , or wielding influence such as Churchill , rather than recent historians who run the risk of layering too much hindsight based on outcomes. The book informs, entertains and elevates the level of discussion leading one to seek out similar approaches to historic interpretation.

A great read and highly recommended.
Profile Image for David.
Author 8 books15 followers
July 29, 2022
A fascinating book, not just as a tool for decision makers (not me) and their staffs (there I am!) to make good use of history, but also as history itself.

On the first point (it being a tool for how to use history) the writers, both political and policy veterans in US service, propose a way of facing a given situation by understanding its history, the history of key players involved, and the differences between prior situations and the current one. What's more, they offer what they call "mini-methods" which are basically questions to ask and thought exercises to perform when faced with a situation.

On the second point (it being history itself), it offers a fascinating window into some more forgotten details of the Ford and Carter administrations, in many cases informed by the authors' discussions and questions of the decision makers themselves. I found particularly fascinating the discussion of the 1976 Swine Flu Epidemic that wasn't. I'd never heard it mentioned before, even while working at the federal interagency level in DC during the COVID pandemic! (Which, by the way, goes a long way to proving the point the authors make about a shameful lack of institutional knowledge and history among US citizenry and institutions.) What was especially striking and infuriating was that the book's exploration of what went wrong at the CDC during the 1976 incident felt like it could have been written last year, some forty-five years later.

I can think of no more powerful (or damning) endorsement of Thinking in Time than that--given the chance not to repeat a mistake from the past, the lack of understanding of history and failure to ask the right questions of our own past that the book warns against meant we were condemned to repeat it.

Failure, it seems, is evergreen.
6 reviews1 follower
January 22, 2009

Now, the work begins.

After a memorable day in which he weathered Chief Justice John Roberts’ fumbling of the presidential oath, danced with his wife Michelle to the Etta James tune “At Last” crooned by Grammy Award-winning singer Beyonce, and attended all 10 inaugural balls, Barack Obama wakes up today as America’s first black president.

Yesterday inauguration was drenched in historical symbol and substance.

Obama referred repeatedly to the past in his inaugural address and placed his hand on the same bible that Abraham Lincoln had used close to 150 years earlier.

At different points, Obama invoked immigrants’ journeys to America from distant shores, the hardships of slavery, military sacrifice in Concord, Gettysburg and Khe Sanh.

He cited the strength of previous generations in meeting daunting challenges like fascism and communism.

“We are the keepers of this legacy,” Obama proclaimed.

Today, he begins, with other elected officials and the public, to work to maintain and advance that noble legacy.

But, while doing so, Obama would do well to consider previous presidents’ uses of history to positive and negative effect.

The late Harvard professor Richard Neustadt and his colleague Ernest May tackle this subject in an illuminating book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers.

Published in the mid 80s, the book arose out of the professors’ classes at the Kennedy School of Government.

During their courses Neustadt and May would examine prior presidents’ decisions with an eye toward evaluating how they thought of, and used, the past to guide their weighty decisions.

It is a decidedly mixed record.

The book begins with the success of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the saving of Social Security during the 1980s, but also covers a wide range of fiascos from the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion to the false call in 1976 of an impending flu epidemic to a series of missteps during the Carter Administration.

In many cases, the authors argue, a more thoughtful use of history based in a combination of analysis, close examination of analogies used to understand the present situation, the leaders’ placing themselves in the other person or organization’s position, and officials’ thinking about themselves as part of a time stream, a bridge between the past and present, could have made a difference.

Neustadt and May explain their method in concrete and unfolding details that are continually amplified by concrete examples. The authors suggest that leaders identify what is known, unknown and presumed, then explore the likenesses and differences between previous events and the current moment.

An examination of the presumptions driving the action should be next so as to uncover possibly inaccurate assessments of the situation and likely outcomes should follow. From there, leaders should try to understand other individuals involved in the situation in part by mapping their life experiencs as well as those of the organizations to which they belong-in essence, heading the Native American injunction not to judge a man until one has walked a mile in his moccasins.

Finally, and perhaps most important, leaders should think about their actions in the present as part of an historical stream in which the present bridges from the past to the future.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had this quality on domestic issues, the authors say, but less so on foreign concerns. Lynon Baines Johnson had this sensibility on race issues because of his childhood experiences in segregated Texas, but lacked it in the War in Vietnam.

Neustadt and May admit that this method is neither a panacea nor a recipe for transformation-at one point they compare someone who applies it to a baseball player who may raise his average from .250 to .265-but they do believe it can make a positive difference and help decision makers avoid “the Kennedy complaint at the moment of disaster in the Bay of Pigs: “How could I have been so stupid!”

Now, it is Obama’s turn to lead us during a seemingly endless and worsening series of challenges.

History will judge his actions, and the closing of his inaugural addressed suggested that he, at least yesterday, thought in Neustadt and May’s time stream.

In this excerpt Obama links his family’s journey to the nation’s creed and diversity before connecting George Washington’s words to a huddled band of soldiers in a desparate hour to what we may someday say to our grandchildren:

“This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

‘Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it).’

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

Delivered before a throng of 1 million people more at the Washington Mall, these lofty words will now need to be matched by Obama’s individual and our collective action to be given life and meaning.

The work begins today.

133 reviews
April 22, 2021
This is a book about how government decision-makers should use history to make decisions. It stems from the “Uses of History” course in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The book uses numerous case studies both good and bad, from the Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Administration through the Jimmy Carter Administration. The authors breakdown how decisions were made or should have been made and come up with seven critical steps in making good decisions. There is one potential danger to this approach. If current decisions are based on historical decisions that were flawed due to inaccurate information or presumptions, then current leaders simply might perpetuate bad decisions. Nevertheless, the methods presented (there are seven steps to this process) are necessary for good decision making. So bottom line, the book is not a history book but about “how to use experiences in the process of deciding what to do today about the prospect for tomorrow.” An interesting read.
Profile Image for C. Patrick.
108 reviews
May 2, 2020
Sometimes the hardest thing is to ask the sorts of questions that will help define the problem that ultimately must be solved. Thinking In Time is not a new book but should remain close at hand for decision makers and their staffs. I have seen firsthand the rush to develop alternatives for action in operational and policy settings, which is not unusual in strong ego organizations with a bias for action. That leaves an important job for well read staffers or leaders, who can see an issue relative to the stream of time, to perhaps temper the rush to action or help tease out the hidden risks that threaten to trip up the organization. Solid work by the authors, given I have been reading this in the time of Coronavirus, I was particularly appreciative of the swine flu case study and the damage sustained by the Ford administration in their haste to vaccinate the country.
Profile Image for Jon.
6 reviews
December 19, 2021
A book about the perils of analogical reasoning and history in decision-making, primarily from the viewpoint of statesmen. The majority of the examples involve decision making in the foreign policy arena.

The authors argue that the usual way of decision making involves reaching for the nearest fuzzy analogy with surface similarities and a plunge towards action. They use historical examples such as Carter’s first 100 days in office to demonstrate how the use of inadequate analogies and a failure to think about key presumptions, known and unclear, the likenesses and differences between their chosen analogy and the situation at hand as well as consider the histories if issues, persons and organizations can lead to inadequate and sometime disastrous results.

Overall the book was helpful in identifying the problems analogical reasoning but short on empirically-solid solutions.
Profile Image for Maria.
3,927 reviews101 followers
October 22, 2017
Neustadt and May argue that thinking of history as a time stream allows leaders to analyze situations, issues, individuals, and institutions and come up with better answers to the question "What should I do?" Using case studies from history they show how asking questions and establishing, Knowns, Uncertains, Presumptions would lead to better presidential and governmental decisions.

Why I started this book: This book is repeatedly placed on military professional reading lists. And while the cover is dated and so are the examples, the thought process and questions deserve to be pondered, answered and applied.

Why I finished it: Hard book to get thru... because of dated examples (Kennedy-Reagan) but worth it in the end.
11 reviews1 follower
January 12, 2020
I thought this book had some good insights that fit well with what we teach in CAP; in particular, thinking about Knowns, Unknowns, and Presumptions when dealing with issues. Also thinking abut timelines of events--should consider thinking about extending timelines further in the past than we usually do. The concept of "placing" was interesting - considering the background of people you're serving--policymakers--to get a better sense of how they're processing information. I found the book was a little slow in some sections.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Clay Murray.
1 review
May 19, 2018
“Thinking In Time,” by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May is a must read for field-grade officers and practitioners of operational design methodology found in the operational level of war planning. It is also a great read for millennials entering government service because it uses interesting historical situations from the 1950s through the 1980s to illustrate all major points.

The authors set up a cognitive framework called “mini-methods,” useful to staff members and decision-makers who are to solve ill-defined problems. Don’t confuse this with operational design method, rather the authors offer a way to enhance the first step in operational design: define the current operational environment.

Although the authors built a very strong academic approach to problem-solving, they risk jumping to inferences too soon. It might be better to pause before drawing inferences and establish a clear vision for the future state. The authors didn’t fully consider this risk. Following the operational design method, the next step would be to define the problem, clearly. Then, create an assortment of operational approaches toward that desired future situation.

Overall, the “mini-methods” described in the book are easy to learn and apply to one’s daily/routine staff work. In particular, field-officers are expected to bring value and depth to problem-solving and conversations with decision-makers. Applying the “mini-methods“ will absolutely help field-grade officers meet this expectation.
Profile Image for Christopher T Galvez.
22 reviews4 followers
June 7, 2018
Neustadt & May are arguing a model for effective decision making. They place their model amoung multiple historical case studies as examples both good and bad decision making. This isn't clear at first. However, once you understand the model and their logic, the application process in the text is enlightening.
113 reviews4 followers
May 22, 2019
This is a reread from 1986. The framework for asking questions - historical context, relationships, and the 'so-what', remain valid to another generation. Neustadt and May encourage a thought process to achieve objectives. A practice which appears absent at present.
Profile Image for Robert.
407 reviews17 followers
July 21, 2018
meh - reads exactly like a Kennedy School prof trying to explain his reasoning for working through case studies. Extremely try and, for this historian, not so instructive.
Profile Image for Keith MacKinnon.
16 reviews4 followers
November 12, 2018
I appreciated this book more than my "like" of the book. 3 stars because it was mostly a slog to get through. It is, after all, designed as a companion of sorts to an advanced college course.
12 reviews
January 13, 2021
Interesting and practical guide for analyzing historical episodes to illuminate decision making.
Profile Image for David.
408 reviews12 followers
December 13, 2021
Enlightening on calculating possibilities and forecasting - even more useful than today popular Superforecasting concepts for me.
Profile Image for Dennis Murphy.
649 reviews5 followers
August 13, 2022
Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May is one of those books that is painful to read, that is at times a slog to finish, but is ultimately redeemed by the core message it is trying to tell you. It sags, tremendously, in the middle. It took me six months to finish, which means I was going at a rate of under 2 pages a day. That said, the book is recommended highly by virtually every practitioner I come across, from former intelligence community members, to former state department diplomats, to former defense department personnel. I understand why. While I found the book at times tedious, I imagine for people just starting to think of the use of history in policy, or for those looking for ways to apply history to policy, this book is an excellent primer for that sort of thing. But the more you know, the less this book will seem profound, and the more it will border on common sense. Likewise, the book has the distinct detriment of being rather old by now as far as politics are concerned. Most of its core lessons have long since been picked up, and abridged versions of the book's argumentation heart appear in many classrooms that given the core lesson without the pain of needing to revisit the text.

No idea if I'm damning with faint praise for some of you, but the book is as respected as it is for a reason. If you already know about applied history in policy, the utility of the book goes down, and the argumentation to get to the point will come across at times as condescending, and at others as rather off-putting for a different reason.

Take a look.

And if you must, think of it like medicine.

You're not reading it because of the taste.

Profile Image for Dave.
727 reviews21 followers
May 25, 2015
The title of this book intrigued me. As much as I enjoy reading history just for the sake of personal curiosity, it would be nice to also better put that knowledge to work for me. The analysis that the authors recommend can apply to government and business decision makers alike, although the examples they use to illustrate their process are all from the field of government.

It's too complex for me to try to summarize, but a few key points revolve around careful thought about historical analogies that might seem to apply to the current circumstances. Decision makers tend to look most closely at the similarities between the two situations, but they need to look just as closely at the differences. That can make all the difference between a good and bad decision.

Also, when facing a decision, the authors suggest other steps that are often ignored in the rush to come up with the answer to "What do we do now?" Separate what is known from what is unclear and what is presumed. That will help you analyze the differences in any historical analogy you may be using.

Sounds like common sense, but the examples he uses show that decision makers are often in such a hurry to be seen as acting decisively that they skip careful analysis.

there's much more to it, and you sometimes wonder how much of their analyses examples reflect hindsight, but it's still a fascinating group of case studies.
Profile Image for Jonathan Heaslet.
Author 2 books
July 5, 2020
Two Harvard profs (History & Public Policy) review about 20 cases studies of significant political/historical crises in the second half of the 20th century (Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Swine Flu pandemic, SALT, etc.). Their goal is to analyze objectively how decisions WERE made, and using a process the authors' developed, how different/better decisions COULD have been made. The authors offer as an algorithm of steps: K-U-P/L-D — Known, Unclear, Presumed/Likeness - Differences; the Goldberg rule (What’s the story?); What is the time line; basic questions used by Journalists (who, what, when, where, etc.); Bets/Odds; the Alexander question (what fresh facts would cause you to change — tests presumptions); and Placement questions of both individuals and institutions. Fascinating trip down memory lane for those over 60. Wondering if anyone is DC today is using their algorithm to analyze/implement public policy. PS This algorithm is appropriate for use at all levels of government.
Profile Image for Patrick.
233 reviews18 followers
July 23, 2007
A good book written with the intention of teaching decision makers at the Presidential level use history to help them form their decisions. If you're familiar with the details of the historical events that Neustadt and May focus on, then you will find their perspective on how and why the President and his cabinet made the decisions they made pretty interesting.

Doubtful that anyone in our current administration read this book during 2002 or 2003 (except maybe Colin Powell).

If you like high level American history from the latter half of the 20th century, then check this out. Published in 1986.
May 31, 2012
Excellent text outlining a number of "mini-methods" suggested by the authors on utilizing history to deal with crisis. The manuscript is written primarily for decision makers and their staffs who formulate and implement policy. While seemingly geared toward the public sector, such mini-methods and concepts, such as getting the organizational history, have applications across the private spectrum as well. Overall, one of the single best books I've read on how to actually arrive at decisions.
Profile Image for Mike.
34 reviews2 followers
October 22, 2013
An interesting but dry book regarding the decision making process in politics. Using the Cuban Missile Crisis and the development of Social Security as two examples among several, it makes invaluable points about the importance of taking into account the historical background and motivations behind the actions of other persons and countries.
Profile Image for Joe.
44 reviews4 followers
March 19, 2016
This is an excellent book for those (like me) who do not have strong history backgrounds, but are required to have a working understanding of certain historical events. Placing events in context, based upon facts known to decision makers at the time, has helped me learn more about how to seek and use history for my current work. This book was helpful in learning how to do that.
Profile Image for Bill.
5 reviews5 followers
April 13, 2010
Interestingly enough one of the things they go over in this book is the Ford administration's decisions regarding swine flu. It is very dry, I might finish it another time, or just use it for reference at some point.
Profile Image for Lauren Contreras-Loreto.
284 reviews2 followers
August 3, 2011
Two thumbs down. While there is a grain of reason in this book, I felt more like they were saying Hind Sight is 20/20, so make sure you make the right decision this time. Most of this book felt like common sense with a few grains of wisdom sprinkled in here and there.
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