Friday, 16 September 2016

Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed – a review

This is the book that I wish I had written.

Indeed, I will even go so far as to say that some of its ideas can be found in my blog – albeit in this book they are set out far more clearly and with greater insight than I normally muster.

This is truly an excellent book, vital reading for anyone with an interest in knowledge management, organisational learning, lessons learned, organisational design, leadership development and much more.

Matthew Syed’s book looks at how we normally deal with failure (i.e. not well) and how this hinders our ability to learn, and therefore to improve.  He provides case-studies from healthcare, criminal justice, aviation, manufacturing and sport, to show how a different approach to ‘failure’ enables better performance.

Some of the key ideas include:

·        Cognitive dissonance – the discomfort we experience through our inability to cope with evidence that challenges our fundamental beliefs or assumptions, which leads to twisting facts to suit our preconceived conclusions;

·        Marginal gains – using many small improvements, both lateral (i.e. in different areas) and sequential (i.e. iterative) to produce a large improvement overall.  He uses the Team Sky approach under Sir David Brailsford, as well as Formula One teams like Mercedes, to make this point;

·        The ‘blame game’ – the toxic tendency to look for ‘fault’ in others when things go wrong – a noxious feature of what passes for political and media discourse in most Western countries; in examining this, Syed references Sidney Dekker’s excellent book, ‘Just Culture’, which I reviewed here;

·        ‘Growth’ (as opposed to ‘fixed’) mind-sets – the mature and confident outlook of those happy to fail and eager to learn in so doing.  Examples here include James Dyson and David Beckham.

Feedback that has not been sought but is offered anyway would include:

·        No mention of the former England rugby coach, Sir Clive Woodward’s approach of improving ‘100 things by 1%’ which is almost identical to that of Brailsford’s ‘marginal gains’ (and in fact preceded it);

·        Many of the case-studies and statistics from healthcare, criminal justice etc. are from the United States, with fewer data from the UK.  Not a major issue but, as a British reader of this book by a British author, this was notable; perhaps there is greater transparency there – if so, I would not be surprised;

·        No mention of Chris Argyris and his work on ‘organisational defensiveness’.  The book is full of sources and texts, many of which I will now seek out and read for myself.  I was just hoping to find Argyris’s famous ‘undiscussables’ and noted their absence;

·        Public life and the inter-action of the media and politicians were examined but I rather think both sides were let off far too easily, as were we, the readers and voters who permit and perpetuate what Syed calls our “blame-orientated…public culture”

It is in this final area (political discourse) that I think there remains much to reveal and discuss and perhaps I can do that in a book before someone else beats me to it!

Overall, this was a fascinating, thought-provoking and entertaining read and I strongly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in making things better – which should be all of us.

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