Uses of History
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Uses of History in Decision-Making
I. History used to make daily decisions, usually
A. Handling problems/concerns.
1. Invoking personal knowledge.
2. Reviewing documents.
3. Applying analogies.
II. History tools.
A. Define the immediate situation/problem.
1. Define concerns and their origins.
2. Define objectives of decision-makers.
3. Separate what is known, unclear, and presumed.
4. Identify currently feasible courses of actions.
B. Determine the applicability of analogies, past
1. Identify likenesses and differences.
2. Ask “What is the story?” not “What is the
3. Determine the who, what, when, where, how, and why.
4. Plot the timelines of events and identify trends.
5. Probe presumptions.
C. Provide different perspectives for context.
1. Encourage (individual) disagreement.
2. Question (individual) differences.
3. Assess the likelihood of different explanations.
a. State the odds of various outcomes.
b. Ask yourself what new evidence might change a presumption.
D. Think in “streams of time.”
1. When reading the newspaper, think about whether
new has occurred.
2. Instead of marking time as just numerical quantities, think
about it as an agglomeration of many factors and forces (i.e.,
a decade is not just “ten years” but “the approximate
length of the (American) war in Vietnam” or “the development
time of the Space Shuttle”).
A. Historical data can provide powerful supporting
arguments to decision-makers.
B. The explicit use of history clarifies analytical thinking.
C. We can indeed learn from both our successes and failures.
D. Thinking analytically can be hard work, but even busy decision-makers
can benefit from briefly thinking in explicitly historical ways.
Note: These methods were developed
by professors at the Harvard Business School for use by major decision-makers
taking special executive courses. See Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest
R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers
(New York: Macmillan Free Press, 1986). Thanks to Roger Launius
and Louise Alstork for this summary.
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