Book review: Black Box Thinking

Black Box Thinking (36)

by Matthew Syed

I make plenty of mistakes and hopefully every time I make an error I try to learn a little bit about how to avoid the same mistake next time.

Now I’m sure that more often than I’d care to admit I repeat the same mistake too often and not doing enough to ‘auto correct’ as quickly as I should.

That being said I do think that I do try to admit when I’m wrong and do something about it and I’d like to think that most people are similar in their perspective.

However there are plenty of examples of prominent people who feel that admitting error and making mistakes is a sign of incompetency as opposed to something we all do from time to time.

The scary thing for me is many of the most prominent people who make mistakes are politicians and leaders of certain countries often with access to scarily large amounts of militarily capability….and I’m thinking specifically of Putin in Russia and in the (hopefully unlikely) event of Trump becoming US president.

Which is why I found Matthew Syed’s latest book so fascinating.

You see ‘Black Box Thinking’ is about making mistakes, admitting the error and then putting systems in place to rectify the issue in the future (this analysis is often done with the data stored in the ‘black box’….a piece of equipment which every commercial flight should possess which stores data which can be examined if an accident occurs)

Now you’d assume that this ‘fail / learn / test’ approach was prominent in all sectors and professions however the reality is that in certain occupations a culture of fail / learn / test is not the way things are done.

In ‘Black Box Thinking’ Syed explores how the medical profession manage ‘mistakes’ in a different way and instead of collecting data, analysing what went wrong and improving the systems in many western countries hospitals they fail to admit and take responsibilities for their mistakes.

Often Syed explains this is through fear of what the consequences of admitting mistakes are, but also pride plays a part as does the loss of a perceived authority and expertise. However the author also goes onto explain that when steps are taken to change this culture this can lead to a marked improvement in safety in hospitals.

In the book Syed explores a bunch of reasons why making mistakes and learning from them is vital for high performance using David Beckham and Dave Brailsford (the SKY and UK Olympic cycling team boss) as examples of individuals who failed thousands of times but each time gaining gradual improvement.

I enjoyed this book. It’s stories are interesting, the issues it raises felt important and it made me think about my own mistakes and whether I always learn from them and also always admit them.

I know that it made me think about my attitude to making mistakes and hopefully I’ll make better more informed decisions as a result in the future.

You can pick up your copy of this book here.

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