Black Box Thinking: Book Review

Black Box Thinking

Each fortnight I read something that looks new and interesting from the Amazon business books list. This week I read Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance by Matthew Syed.

Transformative reading. If you’re seeking to improve anything – a business, a team, yourself – then I’d highly recommend it.

Lots to take away and apply in a business world and a personal one. The book broadly compares the approach of the airline industry (share and learn from mistakes, openness and lack of blame, continual improvement through marginal gains) to those of the medical profession (Syed claims the medical profession is closed in its thinking, quick to blame and buries mistakes rather than sharing them for the greater good).

The differences between the two industries are stark and there’s a lot to learn about soliciting feedback in a spirit of non-blame and openness, and constantly improving. The book delves into the success of David Beckham, the experimentation of James Dyson, elite cycling, Formula 1, architecture, the judicial system and a load more on the way, so there are a great number of fascinating anecdotes and case histories.

Black Box Thinking: Top 5 Takeaways

  1. Feedback is at the very heart of improvement and growth. Our approach to feedback, our fears of feedback, how we embrace or ignore feedback, and ultimately the great necessity that humanity has of feedback, in order to learn and improve.
  2. Failure, and our attitude to failure, is critical to learning and improvement. Both David Beckham and James Dyson notched up thousands and thousands of small “failures” on their way to success. But neither of them saw it that way – rather they framed failure as part of the journey of success. Syed says successful people have a counter-intuitive attitude to failure, in that they are “intimately aware of how indispensable failure is to the overall process” (of success).
  3. Cognitive dissonance becomes more problematic the more experienced and influential you are. Cognitive dissonance is where dissenting evidence is reframed or ignored. Syed gives some terrifying examples of it in the book. The major takeaway here is that the more senior you are, the more you have had your opinions expounded and listened to, the more likely to are to cling to “what you believe” even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It quashes feedback, improvement and innovation.
  4. Blame is entirely counterproductive. Syed uses the awful outcome of the Baby P case to highlight how blaming people for failures can never achieve what those doing the blaming actually want: a complete reform of the system. He highlights how a blame culture drives down the number of failures and mistakes being reported. And yet it’s these very failures and issues that are vital to fixing broken systems.
  5. Bottom up often beats top down. Trial and error, failure, marginal gains based on feedback. Syed shows that these are the things that actually create progress and improvement. He debunks the myth that great leaps forward come solely from a single creative spark. Instead they are a combination of slow, grinding, evolutionary progress, in combination with the received wisdom of previous generations.

Black Box Thinking: Top 5 quotes

  1. “Clear feedback is the cornerstone of improvement” Sir David Brailsford, Team Sky General Manager, quoted in Black Box Thinking
  2. “One particular problem in healthcare is not just the capacity to learn from mistakes, but also that even when mistakes are detected, the learning opportunities do not flow through the system” Matthew Syed
  3. “We make sure we know where we are going wrong, so we can get things right.” Toto Wolff, Executive Director, Mercedes Formula 1 Team quoted in Black Box Thinking
  4. “Incentives to improve performance can only have an impact, in many circumstances, if there is a prior understanding of how improvement actually happens.” Matthew Syed
  5. “Marginal gains, as an approach, is about having the intellectual honesty to see where you are going wrong, and delivering improvements as a result.” Sir David Brailsford, Team Sky General Manager, quoted in Black Box Thinking

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