Black Box Thinking: The surprising truth about success

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Black Box Thinking: The surprising truth about success

 Learning from failure has the status of a cliché. But it turns out that, for reasons both prosaic and profound, a failure to learn from mistakes has been one of the single greatest obstacles to human progress. Matthew Syed 

Is success down to luck, judgement, or something else?

When US airlines flight 1549 was famously landed safely in the Hudson river in 2009, people around the world hailed the pilot as a hero and the story became a Hollywood film. But Captain Sullenberger himself pointed out that his success was due entirely to all the people who had made mistakes before him – “Everything we know in aviation, every rule in the rule book, every procedure we have, we know because someone somewhere died”.

The black box – which records data and voice from the cockpit and can be retrieved after accidents to find out what really happened – has been fundamental to dramatically improving the safety record of the airline industry. Today, there is just 1 accident for every 2.4 million flights, but when the industry started deaths of pilots, crew and passengers were tragically frequent.

The best-selling author Matthew Syed has studied businesses and individuals in detail to identify the importance of the Black Box approach and uncover fascinating examples of Black Box thinkers and organisations across industries, from Team Sky, to Dyson, to Google.

In the first part of the book, Syed explains how the airline industry has adopted a unique approach to problems that has made it one of the safest ways to travel. Airlines know that to survive commercially safety has to be paramount. Rather than feeling threatened by errors, findings from the black box and subsequent independent reports are immediately shared across the industry so that updated instructions can be issued to all pilots and airline staff.

This open culture, where accidents are examined in detail to find out exactly what went wrong and how to avoid them, is in stark contrast to the healthcare sector where mistakes are much more likely to be covered up. How often do we hear medical accidents explained away as ‘just one of those things’ or ‘we did our best’. While it is true that medical staff achieve amazing things under difficult circumstances, with restraints on resources and complex diagnosis and procedures, all too often mistakes are hidden to protect individuals or institutions, meaning that no patterns can be identified and shared, and more people die or are injured in preventable circumstances. An autopsy should be seen as the medical equivalent of a black box.

In healthcare, the scientific and analytical approach has been applied to new drugs, but not, on the whole, to the complex question of how real people working in large systems deliver treatments. This helps explains why medical errors now kill more people than traffic accidents.

For new and better methods to work, however, huge effort has to be put into changing the culture in organisations so that people lower down the chain of command are encouraged to speak up. Senior doctors and consultants are often seen as infallible so that more junior staff feel too intimidated to voice suggestions even if they know what can help in critical situations.

And healthcare need not fear a huge increase in litigation if mistakes are openly admitted. Hospitals in the US who have changed their culture and introduced methodical ways to report issues have reported dramatic drops in claims and lawsuits.

In the rest of the book, Syed delves into more failures, our response to them and how they can result in innovation and growth cultures. For example, biologists from Unilever methodically tested 449 physical adaptations of a nozzle to finally get the right design that didn’t clog, a shape that would never have been developed from theoretical calculations but came about through rigorous experimentation, and failure.

Many of the most successful ideas, from Dropbox, to Dyson’s vacuum-less bags to ATMs are actually a creative response to a problem – without a problem, flaw or frustration, innovation has nothing to latch onto.

Perhaps it is finally time to admit that failure, embrace the opportunities it brings, and start building your own black box culture.

About the author

Matthew Syed is a bestselling author and writer for The Times. He is regularly featured on Newsnight, CNN and World Service TV and was the England table tennis number one champion for almost a decade, three times Commonwealth champion and twice represented Great Britain in the Olympic Games. He graduated from Oxford University with a prize-winning first in Politics, Philosophy and Economics after attending a state school that he left aged 16 to focus on table tennis. Syed co-founded Greenhouse, a charity that empowers youngsters through sport.


“Creative breakthroughs always begin with multiple failures. This brilliant book shows how true invention lies in the understanding and overcoming of these failures, which we must learn to embrace.” James Dyson, Designer, Inventor and Entrepreneur

“Excellent . . . This book is a sustained argument about the damage done by the growth of blame culture in Britain and America . . . Syed’s lively book is a powerful warning of the damage such a culture can do.” The Times

Book Details

Author: Matthew Syed