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Book Review: ‘Black Box Thinking’ by Matthew Syed

Black Box Thinking: About the Book

Matthew Syed, now that name rings a bell you might say? and you’d be right, he was the 2002 table tennis gold medallist at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. However, did you know that this table tennis supremo is now one of the UK’s most respected business authors? Matthew’s books are studies around how the best in the business, whatever the business, get so good. This, his 2015 book, Black Box Thinking, is widely regarded as one of his best.

Right from the opening paragraph, it hooks you. I must say the first chapter is possibly the most thought-provoking piece of business literature I have ever read! Syed has an excellent way of wrapping emotion around a business story, which makes it much more personal and much more memorable.

Learning from Mistakes

The main crux of Black Box Thinking centres around how a business and its leaders develop by learning from mistakes, or not, as the case may be. He uses fantastic case studies to bring the book to life. Stories from household names such as the NHS, Unilever, Dyson, and the Sky Cycling Team are employed to create an idea of how some of the big names get it right and also get it wrong.

Black box thinking, book cover

Black Box Thinking – Aviation as a Learning Industry

Throughout the book, author Matthew Syed uses to the aviation industry as an example of one of the great learning industries. Hence the name ‘Black Box Thinking’, and how they use what is called open-loop thinking. This growth mindset way of learning has made air travel the safest form of transport available today.

Syed analyses air crashes and near misses and sets how the aviation industry learns from failure. He brilliantly explains how the crash landing of US Airways Flight 1549 (The Miracle on the Hudson) was only possible by learning from the crash of US Airlines Flight 173 which occurred over 30 years earlier.

Syed, however, identifies that sometimes the human condition gets in the way of our ability to learn from our failures. He states:

‘We cover up mistakes, not only to protect ourselves from others but to protect us from ourselves. Experiments have demonstrated that we all have a sophisticated ability to delete failures from memory, like editors cutting gaffes from a film reel. Far from learning from mistakes, we edit them out of the official autobiographies we all keep in our own heads.’

He also introduces us to the term cognitive dissonance. This is when we spin the evidence to fit our beliefs rather than adapting our beliefs to fit the evidence. These are things we can all relate to and makes Black Box Thinking all the more powerful.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, Black Box Thinking shows us the power of failure. Although failure is not desirable, Syed robustly demonstrates that failure can change the world if we are prepared to learn from it. This is a very engaging and thought-provoking read from the start. There are a lot of takeaways you can use and refer to as part of your working life. I recommend this book very highly.


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John Whitfield

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