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

3.76  ·  Rating details ·  524 ratings  ·  34 reviews
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. ...more
Hardcover, 329 pages
Published March 31st 1986 by Free Press
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Nov 20, 2013 rated it did not like it
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
Frank Theising
Dec 12, 2015 rated it liked it
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 han ...more
Aug 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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
Travis Tazelaar
Sep 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Drybut the lessons can be used in many decision making areas.
Dennis Murphy
Jun 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Policy Makers and Aspirants
Recommended to Dennis by: Robert Williams, Mara Karlin
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 ...more
Jeff Kelly
Jan 22, 2009 rated it really liked it

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 inaug
Jonathan Heaslet
Jul 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
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; th ...more
C. Patrick
May 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
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
Jan 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Clay Murray
May 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
“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 sol
Christopher T Galvez
Jun 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Peter Podbielski
May 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Jul 21, 2018 rated it did not like it
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.
larry cowan
Aug 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“One is the recognition that the future has no place to from but the past “
Keith MacKinnon
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. ...more
Kent Austin
Interesting and practical guide for analyzing historical episodes to illuminate decision making.
May 25, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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
Jul 22, 2007 rated it liked it
Shelves: americanhistory
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
B. Lynwood Davis
Apr 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Sep 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
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.
Dec 09, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: strategy
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.
May 12, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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. ...more
Kirk Kittell
I saw this as a reference in "Blair, Bush, and the Problem of Political Judgment" by Laurence Prusak, Harvard Business Review, 2 September 2010. ...more
Lauren Contreras-Loreto
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.
Aug 30, 2012 rated it it was ok
Its a good book but very dry reading and nothing really eye-opening. We are all told history repeats itself, they just wrote a book about how.

I wouldn't really recommend this book unless you doubt how history always comes back and never experienced it yourself.
Stace Lee
Jun 20, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A must read for analysts and planners from all job functions who are looking to use history/world events to forecast future actions. Simply written, clear and concise, Neustadt's book is a go to reference. ...more
Bo Trapnell
Jan 18, 2017 rated it liked it
While the preface explained that the book wouldn't simply use hindsight to explain best processes for decision-making, the book did as any reasonable person would expect.
The explanation of some historical events was enlightening but I grew frustrated with the authors' arrogance.
Stacey Brewer
Interesting summary of key political moments and decisions. A good book for novice political history buffs.
Jun 06, 2009 rated it really liked it
Did you know that LBJ was NOT part of JFK's secret circel on dealing with the Cuban Missle crisis. Find out this and why that probably showed the genius of JFK at the time. ...more
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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.

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