[Book Review] Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

It’s hardly surprising that Matthew Syed is fascinated by the concept of marginal gains and the secrets of high performance. Not just a journalist, commentator, author, broadcaster (and breathe …), he is a double Olympian, having represented Great Britain in Barcelona and Sydney as one of the world’s top table tennis players.

In his previous book, Bounce, he draws on his experience of ‘choking’ at the 2000 Olympic Games in Australia, where he admits, “when I walked out into the megawatt light of the competition arena, I could hardly hit the ball.”

Perhaps inevitable then, that he should go on to write Black Box Thinking in which he argues that the key to success is a positive attitude towards failure.

The logic of failure

It’s an insightful read from the outset when the author launches straight in with the hard-hitting tragedy of a routine operation gone horribly wrong, ending in the loss of the life of a healthy young mother called Elaine Bromiley. The revelation is that the death could easily have been avoided were it not for a culture so obsessed with perfection, reputation and hierarchy.

It took an incredibly determined, bereaved husband to fight for the truth to be uncovered and ultimately save other lives.

This healthcare story is contrasted by an insight into the world of aviation. Perhaps rather crudely summarized, pilots are encouraged to admit mistakes – with no consequence – for one reason only. The system allows them to do this so that others may learn from what went wrong; and so the industry as a whole can improve safety and efficiency. Both examples are ‘life and death’ industries – yet the cultures and attitudes towards failure are worlds apart.

“If a culture is open and honest about mistakes, the entire system can learn more them.” Dr. Kaplan, a healthcare boss who learned from the unlikely source of the Toyota Production System to create one of the safest hospitals in the world.

The fascinating sub-text is around the role of hierarchy, and how our misconception of infallibility aligns with an often unfounded trust in the established hierarchy.

For most of us, our day-to-day jobs do not come with such high stakes as a doctor or a pilot, but the hierarchical culture in which we work often discourages us from speaking up. Mistakes are made and not learned from. Opportunities are missed.

Cognitive dissonance

Part two of the book questions why professionals are so fearful of making mistakes. (You may also find this New Yorker article, Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds, of interest on this very topic.) What are the psychological mechanisms that underpin error denial; and how does that thwart progress?

There’s a fascinating section in the book called ‘reframing the truth’ – if we’re honest, probably most of us can think of an occasion when we have adopted this technique of self-preservation.

An example Syed gives us to illustrate this behavior is how leading economists often stay true to their chosen ‘school of thought’ and then spend their careers vying to find evidence to prove they are right.

Another example (still fresh in the memory of those of us in the UK) is the insistence of former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that it was right to invade Iraq despite no evidence of the fabled weapons of mass destruction. Political views aside, as each new piece of evidence (or lack of) came to light, Blair set about reframing the truth to suit his argument. This is, of course, commonly known as ‘spin’. For a country’s leader to take a U-turn would be seen as political suicide; so the reframing prevails.

Spin is perhaps something that we may assume to be exclusively in the realm of politicians, but upon closer investigation, it is all around us. It’s just that powerful people often have more to lose. The irony? They are ones we trust the most. Back in the workplace, Syed claims that CEOs ‘blinded by dissonance are least likely to learn from their mistakes.’ This seems like rather a sad truth to me – not to mention a wasted opportunity for some of the brightest, most determined leaders to show humility, admit to being wrong, and go on to do bigger and better things. 

Confronting complexity

The book turns its focus towards ‘complexity’ – and suggests that embracing and learning from failure is even more critical in today’s world; a world in which we can’t possibly reach the best outcomes without a little trial and error. The author points to examples in communist regimes where controlled markets don’t allow for failure or testing, and as a byproduct, reform. In fact, rather than depending on those with expertise, it can often be those without the expertise that come up with innovations and results.

Such examples include a team of biologists working with an adaptive development/cumulative selection approach to design a new nozzle for Unilever; and also the David Beckham effect – a footballer who has perfected his skill not through the understanding of aerodynamics, but through an immense amount of testing – i.e. practice. Of course theoretical change is important, but when a theory fails, practical change often gets results faster.

So why don’t we just continually test our assumptions? Well, we are hardwired to think the world is simpler than it really is; and we often go so far as to create stories about what we see after the event (known as narrative fallacy), making things sound simple and even making ourselves believe that we should have been able to predict the situation.

The world-renowned economist John Maynard Keynes said, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, Sir?”. If only we could all live by that rule! (This made me think of a previous blog post: Lessons in Genuine Leadership.)

Marginal gains

This section of the book draws upon examples from the world of sport (think the tiny details that make a huge difference in the world of track cycling or Formula One) and entrepreneurs such as James Dyson, who allowed Syed a behind the scenes look at his business. Dyson describes innovation as often being a response to a problem; that is to say, it’s often borne out of failure. Without the problem, we simply wouldn’t have the drive to create a solution. (Think Owen McLaren with the collapsible buggy; Trevor Baylis with the wind-up radio; John Sheppard-Barron with the ATM.)

The book goes onto explore how marginal gains are not always enough – sometimes we need ‘giant leaps’ to innovate (the shift from Blockbuster to Netflix, for example) and fear is often the biggest obstacle to creative change.

How do we get to that point of the ‘next big thing’? There are different approaches to creative thinking. Brainstorming is a tried-and-tested favorite to get new ideas flowing, but Syed argues that in order to make significant progress, a ‘critiquing approach’ is preferable. He gives an example of a team trying to come up with congestion relieving solutions in San Francisco. They generated more ideas where innovation happened as a dialogue. A suggestion is put on the table, others respond to it with feedback, and then the team can make another, improved, suggestion. 

The blame game

Sadly, blame is all too common in the world around us – both in business and beyond. Syed describes blaming without proper analysis as, “one of the most common as well as one of the most perilous things an organisation can do. And it rests, in part, on the erroneous belief that toughness and openness are in conflict with each other. They are not.” It’s about a growth mindset, and that is perhaps one of the key takeaways from this book. Stemming from the Ancient Greeks, the importance of turning error from ‘disaster’ to ‘advantage’ is a game-changer for us all.

Syed includes some practical suggestions towards the end of the book, such as carrying out a ‘pre-mortem’ for new projects and ideas. Rather than simply thinking abstractly about what could go wrong, he tells us that the brain thinks differently when looking at ‘what did go wrong?’ – i.e. pretending a project has failed, and looking back to think about what we could have done to prevent it. An interesting nuance that seems to me worth exploring.

Playing golf in the dark

The analogy that most sticks in my mind from this book is that of ‘playing golf in the dark’. How can we learn and improve if we don’t embrace failure and see it as an opportunity to do better?

Here at AchieveForum we talk a lot about ‘failing fast’. It’s a great start, but there is so much that needs to be right culturally for people to truly feel that their failures are worth sharing, so that others may learn. This requires a modern approach to management and leadership, with an enhanced set of leadership skills and behavior. I, for one, am sold on the idea that failure is indeed a core element of collaboration, and the key to progress.

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