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Black Box Thinking

Video Length 2:28

Who Should Read It

Anyone who is afraid of making mistakes.

Why Should We Read It

We will learn how to embrace our mistakes and drive effective organizational change.

What Will We Learn

Mistakes are actually opportunities!

Book Reflections

"How can we fail if we never try?"

In primary school, there was a particular group of my classmates who effortlessly earned straight A’s by simply glancing at their textbooks. When junior high school introduced us to completely new and challenging subjects (English, Physics, Chemistry, etc.), those previously high-achieving classmates were suddenly receiving average marks. They often dismissed their new low scores, explaining, "I could try harder, but why? My teachers know that I am smart.” Years later, I realized these classmates’ true sentiments: they were scared of trying because they were afraid of failing. After all, how can we fail if we never try? Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking helps us break free of this fear of failure by detailing the key individual mindset and group culture needed to internalize mistakes productively, and fulfill our greatest potential.

"Acknowledge that we will be prone to mistakes when we begin any new task."

The first step towards Black Box Thinking is developing a mindset in which we are able to expertly confront complexity with routine ease. This ability requires us to acknowledge that we will be prone to mistakes when we begin any new task. Admitting our mistakes is of course very difficult, and most of us instinctively apply cognitive dissonance to every (seemingly) impossible situation. Cognitive dissonance is a psychological mechanism designed to protect us from feeling threatened by urging us to ignore anything that makes us look silly. For example, prosecutors attack evidence that suggest wrongful convictions. Cults twist facts to fit their predetermined worldview. Politicians re-frame policy failures as success. Cognitive dissonance puts us at risk to repeat the same mistake again and again. Actively acknowledging this potential mind trap helps us overcome our mental blocks so we can begin to learn from mistakes.

"If mistakes are encouraged, then we are free to be more creative in problem solving and more agile with solution building."

To learn from our mistakes, we need not just the right mindset, but also the right environment. Black Box Thinking advocates for a culture in which members share and learn from mistakes without fear of punishment. Mr. Syed highlights the concept of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP), where mistakes are treated as experiments. In any experiment, we test a hypothesis that might solve a problem or rectify a mistake. With MVP, we create these mistakes so that we can learn from them. If mistakes are encouraged, then we are free to be more creative in problem solving and more agile with solution building. Unilever biologists, for example, were never hired to design products. Because they were in the right environment with the ideal support, they were able to dramatically improve their factories' washing powder nuzzles-after iterating 449 different designs and building 45 different prototypes.

"'It is not about being perfect; it's about being willing to value the gift of a mistake."

What we tend to see at the top of every industry is flawless, effortless expertise. What we often don't see is their relentless drive to improve. David Beckham, one of football's greatest midfielders, has been practicing his kicks daily since age six. Michael Jordan missed more than 9,000 shots before winning six NBA championships. James Dyson created 5,127 prototypes before building his famous bag-less Dyson vacuum. Lawsuits against the University of Michigan Health System reduced from 262 in 2001 to 83 in 2007 after it adopted a policy of openly reporting mistakes and reviewing every potential malpractice case. The aviation industry reduced its fatality rate from more than 50% in 1912 to one accident for every 8.3 million take-offs in 2014- all because it studies every error and accident recorded in every black box. For top performers, it is not about being perfect; it's about being willing to value the gift of a mistake.

"Let go of the illusion of perfection."

Black Box Thinking offers a sophisticated approach toward dealing with the mistakes we inevitably make in any endeavor. It even encourages us to experiment with mistakes to optimize our learning. I have lost touch with most of my junior high school classmates, and I hope that they have been able to read this book as I have. The B's and C's they received in junior high were not an indictment on their intelligence, but actually a call to opportunity. If we can let go of the illusion of perfection, we find we are left with something far more satisfying: discipline, effective learning, and well-earned success.

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