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Thinking in Time

I learned about Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers by Richard E. Newstadt and Ernst R. May from AFSA’s recommended reading list when I started our book club last summer.  I assume the text is still used in many college courses, because there are multiple copies available in several local used book stores.   We haven’t discussed the book in our book club yet, but I was curious about why the title was highly recommended.   Reading Thinking in Time is like attending a series of lectures by the authors (both professors), but lectures where you cannot interrupt and ask clarifying questions.

The authors posit that government decision-makers (and their staffers) would make at least marginally better decisions if they applied the mini-methods (authors’ term) described in the text.  The mini-methods are designed to give the decision-makers more historical perspective of the concern, the players (including organizations) and the possible solutions.  The authors do a very good job of teaching the mini-methods throughout the course of the book by re-enforcing the learning from chapter to chapter.

Drawing on examples of domestic and foreign policy decisions mainly during the Johnson, Nixon and Carter administrations, the authors describe the history behind the decisions, the facts apparently associated with the decisions, the success or lack thereof of the actions taken, and then describe a mini-method that could have been applied (or that was successfully applied unconsciously).  Their main mini-methods include defining the immediate situation by documenting what is Known (now), Unclear and Presumed; clarifying the usefulness of analogies by documenting likenesses and differences in the current situation; asking “What’s the story?”; and defining the placement of the people and organizations involved in terms of their histories and experiences.  The authors are very explicit about the degree to which these steps (and the ones I have omitted above) may help the decision-makers and may not.

The whole time I was reading this book, I kept thinking about a book by a former CIA analyst called The Thinker’s Toolkit: 14 Powerful Techniques for Problem Solving.   The content of both books (regardless of both the differences between intended audiences and the differences amongst the authors’ backgrounds) seems to be a slightly-advanced version of common sense when you are reading it, but the tools are really things that most of us forget to do when we’re actually making decisions.  And when we forget to apply the tools, we greatly increase the risk of making bad decisions.  Which takes me to my favorite quote from the book:  Good judgement is usually the result of experience.  And experience is frequently the result of bad judgement. -Robert A. Lovett.


2 comments to Thinking in Time

  • Phillip Crippen

    Sounds interesting. I’ll look for a copy. Do you think the “mini-methods” would apply to identifying business opportunities arising out of a current paradigm shift based on studying how previous paradigm shifts triggered opportunities? For example, you could draw a parallel between the rise of the automobile and personal, distributed transportation, which may have caused the demise of railroad passenger traffic (and lots of other things) and the current rise of renewable energy sources on the grid and increase in distributed generation, which may cause at least a change in the notion of centrally managed power utilities. Would the mini-methods help uncover business opportunities today that might be similar to something that came out of the rise of the family car 60 years ago?

    • John Crippen

      Yes, in that the mini-methods would increase the overall accuracy of your decision-making. In your particular example, they would probably help you more accurately identify the motivations of the market. For the record, the authors did not cover this at all. Their focus was not on predictive activities, but rather on responses to concerns. That said, you could benefit from the application of their tools in predictive activities.

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