Black Box Thinking

"This, then, is what we might call ‘black box thinking.’ For organizations beyond aviation, it is not about creating a literal black box; rather, it is about the willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit. It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organizations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them."

- Black Box Thinking, page 31

In aviation, the black box records the flight so that in the event of a disaster we can thoroughly examine what went wrong. We then implement changes and take precautionary action against future accidents. In Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn From Their Mistakes, But Some Do, Matthew Syed analyzes the method through which people learn, innovate, and create in business and their personal lives. Across various examples, a familiar pattern emerges that demonstrates that success depends on how we react to failure. Traditionally we punish errors. Punitive actions lead to blaming and covering up valuable information that could be used to learn and generate solutions that would prevent more mistakes. Highly effective organizations, teams, and individuals accept mistakes as normal and as an essential component of growth. As a society to move toward higher performance, we need to redefine our relationship with failure. By redefining failure, we facilitate progress, creativity, and resilience.

To learn from mistakes we need the right kind of system and the right mindset. The system has to track errors and utilize them to spur progress. The cultural or individual mindset must accept mistakes so they are not reframed or suppressed. For this summary, I will focus on the Growth Mindset, which empowers us to reframe mistakes as drivers of improvement and ingenuity instead of flaws to regret.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Failure is part of learning and growth

"At the level of the brain, the individual, the organization and the system, failure is a means — sometimes the only means—of learning, progressing, and becoming more creative. This is a hallmark of science, where errors point to how theories can be reformed; of sports, where practice could be defined as the willingness to clock up well-calibrated mistakes; and of aviation where every accident is harnessed as a means of driving system safety."
- Black Box Thinking, page 266

The difference between people and cultures who learn from their mistakes and those who don’t is how they picture their failures. Those with a Fixed Mindset believe their primary qualities like intelligence or talent will not change. Those with a Growth Mindset believe they can develop their abilities through hard work. Mindset predicts how we approach mistakes. Those with a Fixed Mindset ignore mistakes because they feel threatened—mistakes are a sign they are inferior and always will be, they were born that way. Those with a Growth Mindset are interested in their mistakes because they think about errors differently. They believe practice drives progress, and failure is an inevitable part of learning and an opportunity.

Cultivating a Growth Mindset ensures we reap the benefits of our mistakes. Rather than casting blame and punishing errors, we should openly accept mistakes, view them as a challenge and a key to progress.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Practice results in expertise when we learn from mistakes

"If we wish to improve the judgment of aspiring experts then we shouldn’t just focus on conventional issues like motivation and commitment. In many cases, the only way to drive improvement is to find a way of ‘turning the lights on.’ Without access to the ‘error signal,’ one could spend years in training or in a profession without improving at all."
- Black Box Thinking, page 47

Practice alone does not improve our performance or result in progress. Syed mentions the 10,000-hour rule where 10,000 hours of practice should lead to expertise. The problem is it doesn’t unless we couple our practice with careful evaluation of errors and calculated improvements. Syed uses golf as an example. A golfer gradually improves their game with practice using a process of trial and error. If they only practiced in the dark they could practice for years, or a lifetime, without improving—they would never know where the ball landed. Mistakes precipitate growth only when we see them and use the data to enhance performance.

Fundamental qualities of Growth Mindset are repeatedly practicing with awareness, detecting errors, gathering data, and making gradual improvements based on experience.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Blaming increases mistakes and impedes learning and progress

"In the worlds of business, politics, aviation, and health care, people often make mistakes for subtle, situational reasons. The problem is often not a lack of focus, it is a consequence of complexity. Increasing punishment, in this context, doesn’t reduce mistakes, it reduces openness. It drives the mistakes underground. The more unfair the culture, the greater the punishment for honest mistakes and the faster the rush to judgment, the deeper this information is buried. This means that lessons are not learned, so the same mistakes are made again and again, leading to more punitive punishment, and even deeper concealment and back-covering."
- Black Box Thinking, page 228

Power is seductive; it’s tempting to believe we are capable of controlling the outcome of every situation to ensure our prosperity and happiness. We also like to think others control or should be capable of controlling situational issues in their lives. The world is extraordinarily complex, and often errors occur because we cannot identify, understand, or control all the elements of a situation. Instead of recognizing the complexity and investigating to learn more we often simplify the facts. Then we unfairly blame and punish people for mistakes. So when someone makes an honest mistake, they panic and bury the evidence to avoid retribution. Without the data from the error to learn, it’s like practicing golf in the dark—we make the same mistakes, repeatedly.

Instead of blaming, it’s useful to respect that we all make mistakes and how we respond impacts our chances of success in the future. Even though we don’t control all the external forces that can sabotage our best-laid plans, instead of blaming others for our misfortune, an honest evaluation of the facts can guide us to future success. Blaming also closes lines of communication and keeps us in the dark. The accused are unlikely to communicate openly and disclose information that may be vital to solving problems.

Albert Einstein said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” It’s passionate curiosity that allows us to view failure as part of learning and growth. When we’re curious, we don’t blame others because that would deprive us of learning the facts. Also, in Einstein’s case, his curiosity led him to practice and learn from mistakes until he was not only an expert but an innovator benefiting the world beyond his field of physics. Einstein was arguably unique in many ways but, curiosity isn’t an exceptional talent some people are born with, it’s a practice we can all cultivate. Curiosity stimulates our desire to deconstruct our mistakes, evaluate and learn from the data, and use it to improve our results and create new ideas.

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Ingrid Urgolites

ABOUT Ingrid Urgolites

I work for Citigroup in operations. I have a varied background, and I enjoy service-oriented work. In addition to business, I have a keen interest in food and nutrition, and I have been vegetarian or vegan my whole life...
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