Book Review – Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed


Don’t we hate admitting being wrong, of making a poor choice, or making a mistake? I know I do. Very much. So why is it so hard? Everybody makes mistakes. It’s a cliche, but it is true. In Black Box Thinking, by Matthew Syed, we learn that it is because it compromises our self esteem, or precious ego, that we find mistakes and failure hard to own. However, the book shows us how we can use failure to our advantage. In fact, it is the key to progress and success.

Failure declares a problem. In business, our job is to solve problems both in our own business and in the needs of our market. Syed therefore sees failure as an opportunity to investigate an issue to find the problem, then working on solving the problems.In working on solving the problem, we progress, learn and grow. We also innovate, discover, and invent.

When investigating an issue we might find a process that is complicated, flawed, or inefficient. We can break up the process, discover areas of improvement, and resubmit it to the test. It is often possible that the problem isn’t the obvious place. Process and system improvement, is key to being a better business and building better products and services.

Syed wants us to build a positive relationship with failure. If we run from it, it will only catch up with us again and again. Failure can be a teacher. Learning from it requires spending time with it. Doing so with an attitude of improvement is a driver of future successes.

The name of the book comes from distinguishing between healthcare and aviation. For years, Doctors, Nurses, and other medical staff have avoided owning up to mistakes, often because they have lead to death or serious injury, but also because it compromises the prestige of their position after years of study. The book states that at least 400,000 deaths per year in the US are due to avoidable mistakes. In aviation however, failures are investigated thoroughly. There is a different attitude and approach to failure that promotes progress, affects change, and reduces risk of future calamity.

The book has potentially significant implications for businesses. It is great for managers to recognise, embrace, and grow from owning failures and overtly doing so. Turning a failure into a new process, practice, or procedure and explain why and how, sends a message to the organisation and its market. A business that has a culture of being open and embracing of failure as an opportunity is one where staff are not afraid to own up and seek to improve. Everyone benefits from this both inside the business and in the market place. Customers get better products, service, and experience.

Black Box Thinking is a very interesting book due to the quality and depth of examples and supporting demonstrations. This is handy because the core message is simple, having contemporary references that are varied and well-studied ensure the book is not repetitive.

We at HyperWeb have adopted the “project post-mortem” as a way of investigating each completed project and identifying errors and mistakes. Actions are created from them so we learn, improve, and implement with each future project. While we are at it though, we also celebrate the things we did well, which is equally important.

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