Chapter Five: Black Box Thinking

This b51h9pp5odlllog nearly died. Dead. Flat lined.

I read the book, that’s the easy part, I then sat down to write it, but this book in particular was harder than the others to review. It’s not that it’s bad; in fact of all the books I’ve read so far this is easily the best one. I got distracted with work, then went on holiday and before you knew it I was making all kinds of excuses – too tired, I’d better catch up on my emails, I haven’t got time, could I even remember the content clearly enough? Etc..

But I’ve just realised on this grey and misty morning I’d forgotten my goal, life got in the way as it often does and I got distracted with everyday tasks. The irony is I told myself this is ok, that it doesn’t really matter and psychologically disassociated myself from it, but guess what, that’s a key theme of this book.

So let’s put apathy aside and crack on.

I just Googled inspirational quotes about learning from mistakes and there are millions of them – literally millions. The concept of learning from our errors is so common place in our social psychology that it’s become trite, little more than a meme on Instagram to pick you up on a bad day. In his book Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed argues than in lots of cases we’re not learning, in fact we’re doing the very opposite and the infrastructure both internally and externally around us is supporting it.

The main theme in the book is simple, in order to drive innovation, creativity and performance you need to understand what you are doing wrong. Over the 300+ pages, Matthew utilises a lovely blend of theory and real world examples to show when it’s gone right and when often with tragic consequences it has not.

In this blog I’m going to focus on two of the key themes of the book; cognitive dissonance, or as I like to call it ‘kidding yourself you’re right’ and secondly marginal gains.

Let’s start with cognitive dissonance by getting everyone on the same page with a definition taken from simplypsychology.org; cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviours to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.

In the real world the best example of this is smokers. They know smoking is bad for them, may even kill them, but instead they cognitively dissociate from the negatives, focusing instead on the reasons too smoke; ‘one more won’t kill me’, ‘I’m only a social smoker’ etc. It’s just easier to justify the behaviour for the individual, rather than challenge themselves and admit they are wrong.

We see examples of this day-in and day-out at work. People justify their actions and reposition the facts to suit their belief structure. While this protects the ego in us all it prevents us from learning and having that self-awareness that can be so critical in our lives. Matthew in the book says accepting we are wrong is threatening; it requires us to accept that we are not as smart as we think we are. It forces us to acknowledge we can make mistakes even on areas we have staked a great deal on.

The example he uses to highlight his point is that of Marian Keech, a housewife who in 1954 started a cult convincing people that a God like figure had come to her and said the world was ending and only true believers would be saved. The day she claimed the world would end, 21st December 1954, came and went. You would have thought her followers might have smelled a rat and left, but no. The cult’s resolve actually strengthened. They claimed their strong belief had so impressed the God figure, that they’d actually saved the world.

By simply reframing the evidence in front of them, their perception of reality was altered, they didn’t learn or accept they’d made an error in judgment, far from it; it was safer and more comfortable to just carry on believing. While this is an extreme example, it does highlight behavioral traits we all have, to reframe the facts to suit us. Those who are successful at testing the facts to find errors and learn from them, rather than reframing mistakes, lay the foundations for exponential performance improvement.

This is all easier said than done. But let’s say you now have the awareness what do you do with it? Enter marginal gains… Now many of you will have heard of the concept, it’s probably one of the more common theories used in the business world to try and drive performance. The concept that if you could change one or two small things to every part of your day, or to the team you manage they add up to X% increase in performance over all. This idea was in the main popularised by Team Sky (a British Cycling Team), who credited this new approach to performance as a key reason to their success.

In order to effectively implement a margin gains strategy you have to understand your baseline and measure your outcomes. I suspect in many organisations, decisions are made to make changes based on an assumption that it will have a positive impact. However how many times are changes tracked, tweaked and reflected upon? Rarely, as inevitably once the project has been deployed you’re onto the next thing. This does not happen in successful teams like Team Sky; they track and monitor every single change they make to their riders and/or bikes, to judge if there is a material impact on performance however small.

I had an example this week, where a process change had been suggested to help streamline the handover of customer accounts from sales reps to the customer care team. The assumption is it would have a positive impact on the customers experience and ultimately result in higher customer retention rates. All sounds pretty sensible. The thing that was missing from the plan was how were they going to judge success? Without the metrics around the process change, how would we know if it worked? If we tweaked the process mid-way through would that have an effect? How could we judge if it wasn’t working? You get my point and it’s easily done, I do it all the time, it takes a whole lot of effort, but successful teams and people do it…. Just look at James Dyson.

There is a great chapter in the book – How Failure Drives Innovation – which talks about the process James Dyson went through to create his now iconic vacuum cleaner. It clearly highlights not only, how many times he failed, but how he engineered the process to fail; each time learning something new so he could make the improvements needed. In fact it took an astonishing 5,127 prototypes before Dyson believed the technology was ready.

So in conclusion Black Box Thinking is a great book, which I highly recommend. It will challenge your thinking about mistakes, focusing on how we can use failure to drive exceptional performance. If you want to know the inside story on how success really happens, I’d check it out.

More info on Mattew Syed

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