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Black Box Thinking

Updated: Aug 30, 2018

Our first book group read for 2017 was ‘Black Box Thinking’ by Matthew Syed. Appropriately, we met in Waterstones Bookshop in Piccadilly which was a little chilly, but otherwise very conducive to a good conversation.

Syed’s principle theme is that mistakes and failures are critical learning opportunities and improvements waiting to happen. He contrasts the airline industry, which records all critical data in the famous black box recorders and learns through a thorough, dispassionate and blame-free examination of its sometimes tragic mistakes, with the medical profession, which is hard-wired to rationalise, deny or overlook its failures altogether. The result, he says, is that planes get safer every year, while medical errors remain at alarmingly high levels. A cycle of trying, failing and iterating on failure is the only way to win in a VUCA world.

The book moves through examples from manufacturing to sports to the legal profession to politics and even evolution. The examples are clear, the implications huge. As a group we were familiar with much of the theory. Cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, fixed versus open mindsets were brought together in an interesting way around the theme of learning from mistakes, using some visceral examples to highlight just how effectively we can protect ourselves from admitting failure, the missed opportunity that creates, and what can happen when we consciously overcome our ‘anti-failure mechanisms’.

In our discussion, we made lots of connections to models and thinking that already means something to us. Dweck, Lencioni, Kahneman, Garvey Berger, Keegan all came up. We talked about the tension between embracing failure and appreciative enquiry or positive psychology. The trick there may be to see failure not as ‘negative’, but as positive opportunities – marginal gains in performance waiting to happen.

We found that there were lots of opportunities to apply the thinking and principles to different work contexts. How do we encourage leaders to respond to failure and what are the ripples that response creates through the culture of their business? Can we build ‘pre-mortems’ and after-action reviews into projects? What is the ‘minimum viable product’ when it comes to an organisational programme? How does this relate to feedback, agile, pilot programmes, etc?

To apply it, we shared our own experiences of learning from failure – some small, some life-changing ‘crucible moments’. Some of us agreed that our remarkable subconscious ability to reframe, justify and filter information to protect our world-view and ego means that we need to fact-check and further validate literally everything – in a time of ‘alternative facts’, that feels particularly relevant.

If we had a criticism to be levelled at the book, we felt that it could use a good edit. It’s longer than it needs to be, the hay to needle ratio is not quite right, and some of the examples came up more often than necessary. But we felt that the concept of learning from failure resonated, we learned from it, and it was a book that most of us would recommend.


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