Blair, Bush, and the Problem of Political Judgment

by Laurence Prusak

(Larry Prusak, Brook Manville, and I are at work on a book on judgment and how to cultivate it as an organizational, not just individual, strength. Over the next few months, we’ll each be authoring posts in this blog to test-drive ideas and invite input as the research progresses.)

We’re being treated to two new memoirs, one just out and the other due in early November, reflecting on some of the most momentous events of the past decade. The memoirists, Tony Blair and George Bush, have been greatly vilified for some of their decisions. Their books will provide, say the publishers and publicists, their justifications given the context in which those decisions were made.

Context is hugely important, as my coauthors Tom Davenport and Brook Manville and I have discovered. (We are at work on a book on judgment in the context of organizations.) Decisions are never made in a vacuum. So it will be quite interesting to see how these two pols describe the contexts that shaped their thinking.


Tony Blair and George W. Bush shake hands afte...

by Laurence Prusak

(Larry Prusak, Brook Manville, and I are at work on a book on judgment and how to cultivate it as an organizational, not just individual, strength. Over the next few months, we’ll each be authoring posts in this blog to test-drive ideas and invite input as the research progresses.)

We’re being treated to two new memoirs, one just out and the other due in early November, reflecting on some of the most momentous events of the past decade. The memoirists, Tony Blair and George Bush, have been greatly vilified for some of their decisions. Their books will provide, say the publishers and publicists, their justifications given the context in which those decisions were made.

Context is hugely important, as my coauthors Tom Davenport and Brook Manville and I have discovered. (We are at work on a book on judgment in the context of organizations.) Decisions are never made in a vacuum. So it will be quite interesting to see how these two pols describe the contexts that shaped their thinking.

Now, I have no wish to engage in any partisan rant concerning President Bush (and I will leave Blair to his many UK fans). While I wasn’t too crazy about his presidency, honesty compels me to admit that I haven’t been too crazy (except for select, short-lived bouts of enthusiasm) for any of his predecessors either. This pattern was established early when, as an infant in 1944, I spat up on Franklin Roosevelt‘s hand. (True story.) I do think, however, that his account will provide some insight into why his decisions, and so many big decisions by political leaders — presumably able to draw on the best possible information — seem in the aftermath not to reflect good judgment.

In the pre-publication publicity for President Bush’s book, we learn that, with regard to matters like the decision to go to war in Iraq, he intends «to lay out for people all of the information he received and the advice he was getting, and ultimately engage the readers to decide for themselves how they would have acted if they were in his shoes.»

That sounds fair, but it misses a whole layer of context. Readers should also be asked to consider all the people and perspectives he turned to for that information and advice — and then decide for themselves how they would have assembled those. Information is infinite and is therefore always presented selectively. Was the group of people presenting it made up of advisors divided on such questions as whether weapons of mass destruction existed, or war in the Middle East in the interests of the US? How much did the group resemble President Lincoln’s well known «Team of Rivals»?

Deciding which sources to draw on is not only a matter of people; it’s also a matter of frames of reference. Different disciplines offer different ways to think about a problem. I know a history professor, for example, who may be the most knowledgeable person in the country on how Iraq came to be a nation after being thrown together by the Brits after World War I. Given that he’s even a Republican, I asked whether he had ever been consulted by the Oval Office in the rush to war. Not once, I learned.

That was all the more surprising to me because I know that a wonderful book on judgment called Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, is used in training US intelligence analysts. Appropriately so: It’s sure hard to understand anything without knowing how it came about.

Admittedly, the professor I know is just one man. But was anyone asked to help the deciders in DC and London appreciate the chronological context for their deliberations? Of the many, many analysts in the Intelligence services, in the State and Defense Departments, and in NGOs with perspectives to offer, whose views were encouraged? Did they represent diverse opinions? Or was the guiding view summed up by that stupid slogan we sometimes hear coming out of executive suites, «get with the program» — or its twin warning against «paralysis by analysis»?

Good judgment is never a function of the group-think, sycophancy, power plays, or other forms of cognitive bullying that often characterize political relationships. Democratic processes and chronological perspectives may not be as expeditious, but they’re necessary to create a full sense of context.

As you read the memoirs of former Prime Ministers and Presidents, then, it will certainly be interesting to see if, given the same facts, you arrive at the same decisions. But don’t forget that, depending on whom you turned to, you might not have been given the same facts — or interpretations.

Laurence Prusak consults to enterprises on matters of knowledge management, learning, and organizational development. His most recent book (with Tom Davenport and James Wilson) is What’s the Big Idea? Creating and Capitalizing on the Best Management Thinking.

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