Black Box thinking

Last week I just finished listmusingsening to the book “Black Box Thinking”, and anyone that’s had a conversation with me over the last few weeks will know how much I loved it. I’ve been harping on about it so much, I’ve even bored myself at times. Actually, that’s not true – it’s such a great book.

There are a lot of points made in the book, but ultimately it’s about encouraging people and organisations to understand that failures should be looked at as learning opportunities instead of reasons to give up or criticise.

Hiding failure

I’ve been running Ice Blue Sky for more than 9 years, and have made mistakes, which have at times made me wonder what on earth I’m doing, and if there’s something inherently wrong in how I manage things. Part of the problem of course is that we all see so-called “overnight success” stories which make it seem shortcuts and miracles are possible. What we don’t see are the miss-steps, the dead ends, the failures. We’re not good at openly sharing these stories,without putting a spin on it.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking this book is yet another fluffy feel-good mantra on “how to be a better person”. The book examines, in detail, the psychology behind why many people find it difficult to embrace failure.

A particularly┬áinteresting finding is that the more closely tied to someone’s ego that failure is, the harder it is for someone to admit it, even in the face of clear evidence. This then leads to a lack of learning from that failure, which then typically means that failure is repeated. The book looks at how this plays out in various industries such as wrongful convictions in the legal system, and deaths from clinical mistakes in healthcare. When there is a “blame culture”, you can begin to see how this creates an unwillingness to admit mistakes and therefore learn from them.

Learning from failure

Contrast this with the airline industry (hence the book title), where they have worked very hard to build an openness in order that mistakes are not repeated. Pilots can often have legal immunity from mistakes, and findings from investigations are published widely and in great detail, and regularly lead to changes in procedures. However, it’s important to note that deliberate irresponsibility (such as drinking on duty) are punished severely and are poorly thought of by everyone in the industry. This balance is important in maintaining order and not irresponsibly managing failure.

In business, failure can lead to excellence, if managed properly and actively encouraged. There has to be a culture of openness and accountability and an acceptance that iterative development is a good thing. This is where the book really becomes valuable for business, we’ve all heard that James Dyson created more than 3,000 prototypes of his first vacuum cleaner, and as well as that example, the book also talks about the production studio Pixar. Their films are incredibly successful, and they take a very iterative, failure-driven approach to film development. Ideas are tested, rejected, tested again and so on, until the final result is amazing.

A few years ago I organised an event where Sir Clive Woodward was a speaker. I have never forgotten how inspired I was by his talk, where he shared how he managed the England Rugby team to great success. By examining with each player any miss-steps in each match, and working out what small improvements could be made each time. Testing these small improvements to see what worked and what didn’t work as well. Then using this information to change performance, which delivered incredible changes at the macro level, i.e. the entire team performance.

This book ultimately reinforced and expanded on that experience for me, and I’ll now be embracing failure with open arms and making sure that myself and my team learn from it constructively.

About the Author

Charlotte Graham-Cumming

Director, Ice Blue Sky Ltd

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