Black Box Thinking

By Matthew Syed

Black Box Thinking teaches us about the power of failure, and how we should embrace it as a mechanism for improvement. In both business and life, failure has been stigmatised as something to be ashamed of and to deny wherever possible, not least in direct response to the blame culture which has exploded in recent years. This book argues that with the correct mindset, failure is necessary in order to succeed.

Matthew Syed draws together a number of case studies and real-life instances to illustrate his points, with the overarching example being that of the aviation industry. Whilst the book’s key messages are summarised here, it is really important to read it as the examples, anecdotes and interviews used to underpin Syed’s points are extremely interesting, relevant and add a level of reinforcement.

In aviation, pilots are open and honest about their mistakes during investigations which are carried out by powerful, independent investigators. All findings are distributed to the wider industry to ensure that any errors can be acted upon and solved in real time. This is an industry that has changed its paradigm from failure being indicative of negligence, to it being a learning opportunity for all pilots, airlines and regulators.

Learning from mistakes has two components: method and mindset. The most strategic and carefully planned method won’t work if people aren’t invested in it. A growth mindset means that people see the opportunity presented by failing whereas people with a fixed mindset see failure as a threat and are more inclined to give up.

Henry Ford was a bankrupt several times before finding success and Thomas Edison famously said of his lightbulb invention, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” This attitude is also prevalent in sportspeople – essentially it’s the practice makes perfect mentality. The point is that successful people, in any industry, from any walk of life, have a counter-intuitive perspective on failure. They want to succeed but are acutely aware of how failure is indispensable to the process and they embrace it.

The book is segmented into six parts, each of which is broken down further into detailed examples:

Part 1 – The Logic of Failure
“Failure is rich in learning opportunties for a simple reason: in many of its guises, it represents a violation of expectation. It is showing us that the world is in some sense different from the way we imagined it to be.”

Part 2 – Cognitive Dissonance
“When we are confronted with evidence that challenges our deeply held beliefs we are more likely to reframe the evidence that we are to alter our beliefs. We simply invent new reasons, new justifications, new explanations. Sometimes we ignore the evidence all together.”

Part 3 – Confronting Complexity
“We will look at how to create a culture where mistakes are not reframed or suppressed, but wielded as a means of driving progress. We will also look at the external fear of failure – the fear of being unfairly blamed or punished – which also undermines learning from mistakes.”

Part 4 – Small Steps and Giant Leaps
“It is about marginal gains. The approach comes from the idea that if you break down a big goal into small parts, and then improve on each of them, you will deliver a huge increase when you put them all together.”

Part 5 – The Blame Game
“We have to resist the hardwired tendency to blame instantly, and look deeper into the factors surrounding error if we are going to figure out what really happened and thus create a culture based upon openness and honesty rather than defensiveness and back-covering.”

Part 6 – Creating a Growth Culture
“A growth-orientated culture is not a happy-clappy, wishy-washy, we-are-all-winners approach to business or life. Rather, it is a cutting-edge approach to organisational psychology based upon the most basic scientific principle of all: we progress fastest when we face up to failure – and learn from it.”

Put simply, in order for any of us to succeed, we need to have a healthy and empowering attitude to failure: each one offers a unique chance to improve.


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