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Black Box Thinking - Book Review

1 April 2019
Dr. Moria Levy

The book "Black Box Thinking," by Matthew Syed, 2015, delves into the propensity of high-tech and aviation industries to foster effective learning processes, particularly when juxtaposed with sectors like medicine and law. The book underscores learning from errors as a foundational element of innovation. Despite the innate aversion to failure, the book advocates for cultivating a culture that permits its occurrence.


The book covers the following topics:
  • Examining Challenges in Learning from Failures

  • Individual-level Obstacles

  • Organizational Hurdles

  • Nurturing a Culture of Learning

  • Embracing the Potential of Failure

  • Purposeful Training

  • Controlled Experiments and Testing

  • Conclusion


The book's insights hold universal applicability, transcending domains such as engineering, medicine, and law. It offers invaluable perspectives and is strongly recommended for any organization aspiring to foster a culture of learning and innovation.


Examining Challenges in Learning from Failures

Individual-level Obstacles

The inability to derive lessons from errors presents a formidable obstacle to progress, highlighting the imperative to delve into the intricacies of embracing failures. At an individual level, this challenge is rooted in cognitive dissonance—a psychological need to alleviate inner tension aroused when evidence contradicts our opinions or actions. This cognitive dissonance constructs defensive barriers, screens out inconvenient truths, and often shifts blame onto external factors. The intricate tapestry of reality entails many variables influencing success or failure, yet we are inclined to downplay our errors while magnifying external factors.


These mechanisms manifest as follows:

  • Minimizing personal blunders

  • Exaggerating others' role in setbacks

  • Identifying external factors as scapegoats

  • Underestimating the gravity of mistakes

  • Distorting reality to absolve responsibility

  • Fabricating false memories to evade the discomfort


Syed posits two significant contentions:

  1. Rationalizations deepen entrenched behaviors, setting the stage for recurrent failures.

  2. Intellectual acumen and managerial stature offer no immunity against cognitive dissonance.


In essence, we possess a knack for self-deception. The more adept we become at this internal duping, the more arduous recognizing the need for change and learning becomes. The greater the stakes tied to acknowledging failure, the more steadfast our resistance to change becomes, perpetuating the cycle of self-deception.


Organizational Hurdles

The learning challenges extend beyond the individual sphere; they involve organizations as well. Complexity emerges from an organizational culture that venerates performance standards. Managers often wield consequences for those who fall short, a tactic to uphold high performance. These repercussions can materialize as limited recognition, stunted career progression, and in certain instances, even punitive measures.


Parallel to the emphasis on flawless performance, errors are construed as markers of ineptitude. This interpretation swiftly morphs into a perception where failures are seen as threats to both operational efficiency and professional reputation. Organizations, under the guise of venerating performance, inadvertently foster an environment resistant to admitting failures, opting instead to conceal them from scrutiny. This stance stagnates progress and hinders the unlocking of growth potential.


Furthermore, a narrative fallacy frequently takes root. Both individuals and organizations tend to oversimplify reality by interpreting it through preexisting frameworks. Consequently, the capacity to forge novel patterns diminishes, even when such innovation becomes imperative due to the inadequacy of existing frameworks.



Nurturing a Culture of Learning

Embracing the Potential of Failure

The bedrock of nurturing a culture of learning lies in recognizing and addressing prevailing human and cultural barriers. To embark on this transformative path, employees and the entire organization must internalize the concept that reality is intricate and failures are inherent. Failures don't necessarily signify incompetence; instead, they often result from the intrinsic complexity of reality, where unforeseen variables can disrupt even the most meticulously crafted plans. This insight underscores the imperative of learning to bridge these gaps for future endeavors.


The fundamental realization is that within a complex reality, it's unfeasible to consider all facets at the outset. Consequently, learning from failures becomes a crucial tool for enriching knowledge – a tool we cannot overlook—this perspective positions failure as an integral part of the growth process, indispensable for advancement. Embracing failure openly and managing it transparently serve as the foundational pillars of transformation.


In many organizations that foster learning processes, the genuine journey toward a culture of learning truly commences only when there is an authentic willingness to acknowledge errors and failures from individuals. This marks a pivotal turning point, leading to the materialization of desired outcomes. Sometimes, recognizing these challenges surfaces only when an extreme situation is reached – a critical state that potentiates change. While it's preferable to preclude such scenarios, responding to the call for change becomes imperative when faced with adversity.


Purposeful Training

Intentional training involves a structured approach where the aftermath of its implementation is assessed, dissected, and guided accordingly. This entails identifying successes to perpetuate and areas of lesser success to contemplate change. Swede challenges the prevailing notion of perpetual training, an idea significantly underscored in the book "Excellence." The conventional belief asserts that excellence is born from ceaseless hours of training. However, Suede introduces a nuanced perspective – a blend of yes and no. Training is essential, but actual progress only emerges through intentional training. Without purposeful striving for advancement, we risk perfecting skills in activities that shouldn't be pursued. Direction imbues training with significance.


Intentional training yields incremental gains, often referred to as marginal achievements by Suede. A foundational principle is to dissect complex tasks into manageable components and smaller jobs. Each component is meticulously examined for opportunities to enhance performance, forming the bedrock of practical intentional training. It's worth noting that purposeful training must be systematic and comprehensive for sustained effectiveness.


Through deliberate training, an avenue for experimentation and measurement is forged (as elaborated in the subsequent section). This synergy facilitates impactful learning that follows the experimentation process. Thus, training acts as a complement to experiments, offering a platform for refinement and growth.


Controlled Experiments and Testing

The realm of scientific rationale has expanded in dimensions and the pursuit of subjecting ideas to the ultimate test. Wherever necessary, these ideas are disassembled and replaced with fresh concepts. This ethos, embraced by scientific and high-tech domains, nurtures knowledge through tests and experiments. A pivotal principle here is that only some tests and investigations will succeed. On the contrary, through iterative experimentation, we gain insights into what thrives, falters, aligns, and misses the mark. Sometimes, our desired solutions only emerge through trial and error – guiding us toward the sought-after direction. This approach of testing and experimentation is termed a bottom-up learning approach, as it constructs understanding from specifics rather than the reverse.


Controlled tests and experiments encompass two additional aspects beyond the experiential phase:

  1. Pre-planning – contemplating the intended inquiry before its execution. The design might span a sequence of experiments, each time varying the approach to discern the most successful outcomes.

  2. Post-measurement – a methodical evaluation of outcomes. In domains where results appear intricate, the goal is to simplify and translate findings into a user-friendly format. While numeric measurement is ideal, supplementary tools are sometimes employed:

    1. Perception evaluated by individuals [beware of false memory]

    2. Collective discussions on reality [providing space for constructive critique]


The significance of experiments stems from the understanding that we might not always recognize when success eludes us, necessitating change. Experiments and tests, mainly when planned or even evaluated retrospectively, dispel uncertainty and illuminate areas with fewer accomplishments.


Hence, the book's title – the black box approach. A management style that scrutinizes data and embraces multiple perspectives while refraining from penalizing well-intentioned errors, instead employing them as paramount learning tools.



In today's landscape, many methodologies centered around "failure" have emerged, particularly in the high-tech domain – including the SCUM methodology for rapid development, the lean start-up approach, and the fail-fast approach. The parallel between success in sports, music, and other fields is apparent; the path to achievement mirrors a journey of continuous learning and refinement. Insights gleaned from discussions with experts in various domains emphasize the pivotal role of failures in ultimately achieving success.


This very principle applies within the realm of artificial intelligence (AI), which is presently rooted in machine learning, often referred to as deep learning. Machines operate similarly: conducting experiments, collecting data, analyzing results, and learning to enhance future iterations. This shift in AI's perception has sparked a remarkable breakthrough in the field.


Could we, as humans, adopt such a culture not only for machines but also within ourselves? Perhaps we can understand that failure offers a learning opportunity and contributes to the journey toward success. Before data-driven learning became the cornerstone of artificial intelligence, machines struggled to flourish. The implications for us could be equally profound...


As of the time of writing, this potential remains an aspirational horizon for most organizations. However, as you read or revisit these lines, it might already be a prevailing reality among numerous others. Hope persists.


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