Black Box Thinking

I remember Matthew Syed as a table tennis player. The best in England for many years, as it happens, as well as competing for Great Britain in two Olympic Games.

But since hanging up his dimpled bat, he has become a journalist, sports commentator, pundit and broadcaster. And an excellent communicator he is too, winning prizes for his work at The Times and also for his first book, Bounce.

I heard him on Radio 4 today, talking about his latest book Black Box Thinking. It certainly got me thinking too. The subject matter is how to achieve incremental improvements by learning from failure.

Matthew highlighted this by contrasting the aviation industry with the UK health service. Over recent decades, the aviation industry has improved its safety record significantly by being transparent about its failures. An extreme – and topical – example is the Black Box which, if found, should give a detailed insight into the cause of a crash. This will be used, if at all possible, to prevent a similar recurrence.

In the health service, due mainly to surgeons’ egos and the high cost of litigation for malpractice, there is a culture of covering up any mistakes, rather than learning from them. As a result, hundreds of thousands of patients die each year from preventable medical errors.

His arguments are much more complex than I’ve summarised here, but the principle is compelling. He illustrates this further by drilling down into Dave Brailsford’s transformation of the Team Sky pro cycling team. He believed it was possible to make a 1% improvement in a number of small areas, enabling a quantum leap in performance from the cumulative gains. He encouraged the team to think about possible weaknesses in all their assumptions.

Just one small example was that by analysing the mechanics’ area in the team truck, he discovered that dust was accumulating on the floor, undermining bike maintenance. So he had the floor painted pristine white, in order to spot any impurities more easily.

Whether developing a new product, honing a core skill or just trying to get a critical decision right, Black Box Thinkers are not afraid to face up to mistakes. In fact, they see failure as the very best way to learn. Rather than denying their mistakes, blaming others or attempting to spin their way out of trouble, these institutions and individuals interrogate errors as part of their future strategy for success.

How many of us, hand on heart, can say that we have such a healthy relationship with failure?

Learning from failure has the status of a cliché, but this book reveals the astonishing story behind the most powerful method of learning known to mankind, and reveals the arsenal of techniques wielded by some of the world’s most innovative organizations. Their lessons can be applied across every field – from sport to education, from business to health.

Interesting spin, eh? Amazing what he learned from a bit of ping pong.


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