Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed: Summary

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Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance

Learn from the mistakes of others, you cannot live long enough to make them all yourself

Eleanor Roosevelt

This article aims to bring-out the key ideas in the book “Black Box Thinking” by Matthew Syed. One of the most striking aspects of human history is progress. But, progress would not be possible without failure according to Matthew Syed. From learning and mastering that new skill to making ground-breaking scientific discoveries, failure is an important part of the journey and society still has a lot to learn about the importance of failure.

Why don’t we learn from failure?

1. We have negative connotations to failure

Failure has negative connotations; we view it as bad and something which shouldn’t happen. As a result of this, we divert our attention away from it and try to find excuses for why things would have never worked in the first place instead of learning important lessons from it.

2. We blame others

If we don’t blame other things, we tend to blame other people. There can be an instinct to point the finger at someone else instead of working together to properly understand what happened. We may try to summarise what could be a highly complex event into simple explanations. The problem with this approach is that not only will we hide the lessons which can be learnt, but we will also set a precedent whereby people will believe that if blame flows freely then people anticipating blame will try their hardest to cover up any mistakes.  

3. We suffer from cognitive bias

Even if we accept failure and try to learn from it our inherent cognitive biases can cause problems. When we fail, we are faced with two choices: We can accept the new evidence and move forwards with our newly gained knowledge, or we can deny the evidence altogether and form illogical beliefs. Leon Festinger – the famous social psychologist best know for his work into cognitive dissonance – suggests that when confronted with overwhelming evidence which challenges our beliefs, we can be suspect to reframing the evidence and inventing new reasons rather than adjusting our beliefs.

5 ways we can learn from failure

1. “Turn on the lights” to failure

How can we learn from our failings if we do not know we have even failed in the first place? One good analogy to visualise this is to imagine you are playing golf. A beginner would most likely place their shots wide, but from seeing their attempts miss they would be able to adjust how they approach their shot next time round. But lets imagine you’ve decided to play in the dark, or not even look when playing, you won’t be able to see if you have hit the target, got close, or completely missed – when you cannot see how you are doing, how can you learn?

To be able to learn from our failures we need to be able to recognise we have failed in the first place – we need to understand that failure happens and avoid any cognitive bias which could make us reframe the evidence, rather than change our opinions and approaches next time.

2. Change how we think about failure

We need to change how we think about failure. Instead of failure being treated as something to be embarrassed or shameful of, we should instead see it as an educative and important part of progress.

We should be praising each other for trying, experimenting and provide constructive feedback towards how others can improve next time. We should not be made to feel scared to fail, but instead praised for having the courage to try and learn from our failures.

We should see failing as a learning opportunity and something which motivates us to investigate why something did not work, instead of something to place on other things or people for why they didn’t work.

3. Implement the right kind of system

To learn from failure, we first need a system which allows it. An example by the multi-national consumer goods company Unilever shows a great case of utilising a system which embraces failure. Unilever was manufacturing detergent – a complex process which involves forcing chemicals through a nozzle to disperse them into vapour and powder. They faced a tricky issue surrounding nothing seeming to work, however. They initially turned to mathematicians to solve the problem – they analysed the best methods, held seminars and finally came up with a new design. But to no avail, there were still blockages. In desperation the team turned to a team of biologists – people who may not have had a comprehensive understanding of fluid dynamics, but they instead had something even more important – a profound relationship between how failure can contribute towards success. They toiled away and through a process of trial and error they applied small changes to over 45 generations of the nozzle and had “449 fails” but had a nozzle which was outstanding.

Whilst most people won’t be looking to make a detergent nozzle soon, important lessons can be learnt from this. Their system embraced failure, each time they failed – they didn’t suffer a setback, but instead made another trip forward, towards their end goal.

4. Try to fail early on

Do you think it is best to fail early and understand your weaknesses before large bets have been made or wait until everything has been completed and see if it has worked? 3M – a multi-national conglomerate decided to bring early adopters into the design process itself – they noticed what people did and did not like from their prototypes. They used the feedback to “fail” and develop new ideas. 3M compared both approaches and in their 2002 study they found that the new strategy generated an average of $146m over five years, more than eight times higher than the average product developed using traditional methods.

Try to learn your most important lessons early on, when the stakes aren’t as high. If you wait until everything has been completed before you test if something has worked the cost will be much higher than if you tested early on.

5. Exercise persistence and grit

Finally, a problem with success is that it is positioned as something which happens quickly – modern media through things like talent shows distort our view on success and make us think that amazing things happen in the time it takes to impress a judge or audience. They’re all about overnight success and instant gratification.

But most success rarely happens that way, it takes time, practice and resolve. Expect that you will fail and that what you want to achieve wont be easy. No matter how talented we are, or how many lessons we learn – none of that will matter if you quit.

Hopefully these tips helped – Try changing your attitude to failure and see how it influences your outcomes.

Make sure to check out the book below and pick up even more insights!

Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance