Black Box Thinking

Book reviews


Black Box Thinking

– The Surprising Truth About Success by Matthew Syed.

‘Bounce’ was always going to be a hard act to follow, but, in my opinion, Syed has managed to do that with distinction. So many relevant messages here about effective/ineffective cultures, the dangers of top/down leadership and the need to admit not shun mistakes, learn from them and move forward. It’s about learning to embrace vulnerability. A cracking read!

Black Box Thinking, Syed says, is ‘the willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit…It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organizations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them.

The one thing people hate more than making mistakes is admitting to them and the biggest obstacle to success is the fear of facing up to being wrong. As in the world of Medicine and Healthcare, the fear of making mistakes has haunted The Criminal and Justice System, leading inevitably to a culture of Closed-Loop Thinking, cover-up and denial. Why are people fearful? Cultures of ‘blame and shame’ are pervasive in the modern political, corporate, cultural world leading to two psychological barriers to openness – the shame of having made an error and the fear of what will happen to them as a consequence.

By contrast, what do Mercedes, Google, Michael Jordan, Team Sky, The Aviation Industry and James Dyson have in common? The way in which they learn from their mistakes. This is Black Box Thinking

However, history has shown that even when people fail, are proved wrong or have their beliefs challenged, Cognitive Dissonance leads them to reframe the evidence rather than change what they believe. Treat your beliefs as hypotheses for there is no such thing as the truth just the truth as you perceive it to be.

A positive attitude to failure and mistakes is not only vital to releasing potential and making progress but a precondition for it. We have to learn to own up to the fact that we are fallible and that honest mistakes should not be punished. This does not mean that people should not be blamed for negligence but no blame, no shame cultures are more effective as they enable all information to surface so that people can learn from it.

Change a little to achieve a lot. Marginal gains is the reduction of a problem into component parts, the forensic uncovering of small, latent, unnoticed weaknesses and the systematic improvement of each. The key qualities required are a Growth Mindset and resilience. So many give up after early failure because they believe they are not ‘cut out to do this’ making failure, therefore, inevitable.