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.
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24 August 2002
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