by Michael Goldberg

Thinking in Time

Mar 08, 20084 mins
IT Leadership

The news is not good. “Sharp Drop in Jobs Adds to Grim Economic Picture,” notes today’s New York Times. We have rising oil prices. The credit crunch. A mortage crisis. War. These are what you might charitably call interesting times.

As an editor at, I think about that idea a lot with a key addendum: Our job is to give business decision-makers information and insight you can use to make a positive difference for your organizations. It follows that these discussions inevitably — and often– turn to your career. For you are not only decision-makers at work, you have to make choices about your life. Our stories on and the contributions from you in this Advice & Opinion community reflect this, as well as reflecting the times in which we live.

When one does an analytical mashup — combining the stream of news with the work here at and the work you are all doing — you find a more complicated picture. (If the economy declines, should I change my strategy for spending, investements, hiring, system implementations? This piece at says no; your CFO may say otherwise, and we offer lots of insight on the matter.)

What to do? No one place has the answer, but here’s a recommendation to read a classic work of analysis that suggests how to reflect on the circumstances confronting you.

The book is Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers, by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, two Harvard historians who used a case study approach to analyzing the outcomes in a series of situations: The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962; the Social Security Reform of 1983; President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to escalate the Vietnam War in 1965; the context of characters in the Cold War and the the personal relationships between historical figures such as Malcom X and Martin Luther King. (Full disclosure: I took Neustadt and May’s course at the Kennedy School of Government.)

What you learn when you read this book is that the context in which you make decisions sets the table for the decisions you make. The conditions around you, the history of the people involved in making the decisions and what’s important to them, the history of any adversaries and what’s important to them, and how they interpret the same set of facts. (People can get better at this work. John F. Kennedy succeeded during the Cuban Missile Criss after making horrible mistakes during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, an argument the book makes.)

Neustadt (who died in 2003) and May developed this book from a course they taught to government policy makers in training– people who would go on to serve the executive branch and members of Congress– as well as those training to be analysts for the Central Intelligence Agency. But the lessons of study apply to business just as well. They could be summed this way:

First, define the situation as clearly as you can. Second, define your objective. Then follow three steps, quoted from the book (pp. 235-6):

1. Get the story right. “With some definitions of concerns in hand ask, ‘What’s the story?’ How did these concerns develop. Remember that the ‘issue’ for your boss consists of the concerns appropriate to him, derived from his presumptions (or yours on his behalf) in face of knowns and of uncertainties before him.”

2. Use timelines. “Start the story as far back as it properly goes and plot key trends while also entering key events, especially big changes. Don’t foreshorten the history in ways that may distort it. Don’t neglect changes with high political content.”

3. Ask questions journalists ask. “As the timeline answers ‘when’ and ‘what,’ don’t omit to ask also ‘where,’ ‘who,’ ‘how,’ and ‘why.’ Answers can illuminate still further the potential incongruities in favorite courses of action. This is part of the point of invoking issue history: to get more thought on where to go and on how to get there before taking off.”

If you have studied Thinking in Time, add your thoughts here in the comments section. Or, please feel encouraged to add more book titles you have found helpful in making important decisions for your organization and your career.