Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes – But Some Do by Matthew Syed focuses on analyzing past failures and using Black Box Thinking Coverlessons from those mistakes to encourage the creation of better procedures.

The following are a few of the key learning points I took away from the book.

  • There’s No Shame in Making Mistakes

    • Learning Point: A key theme of the book is that mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of. Instead of hiding our mistakes, it is beneficial to the greater good to understand what we did wrong and correct those systematical issues so that no one repeats those mistakes. According to Syed, “the more we can fail in practice the more we can learn, enabling us to succeed when it really matters.”
    • What to do: When mistakes are made in a process, delve deeper into each step to figure out where things went wrong and why. The only way to create effective solutions is to truly understand the problems. Process mapping is the perfect tool for this.


Hudson Miracle


  • Trial and Error: The Difference Between Miracles and Disasters

    • Learning Point: Syed emphasizes that the results of trial and error are useful learning tools in any profession or circumstance. Whether it be a routine sinus procedure that spirals into life or death emergency surgery, or kids from the Scared Straight program growing up to commit devastating crimes, or even the uplifting case of Captain Sully and the miraculous landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River, these events were consequences of a series of crucial decisions made by the people involved. Despite the differences of each of these examples, a common theme amongst them is that flaws in their respective systems led to substantial outcomes. Just as a pilot’s flight data is captured in a black box, each profession features its own data tracking tool to reflect on.
    • What to do: To continuously improve, it is very important to track the progress of your process. Whether it’s successful or not, each metric is a useful tool to show where improvement is needed. Those that don’t learn from failures are doomed to repeat it and those that don’t learn from successes remain stagnant.


Plane Cockpit


  • Take a Seat in the Pilot Seat

    • Learning Points: Syed paints vivid descriptions of various scenarios for the reader to place themselves in the shoes of the decision makers. How would you react if a part of your everyday routine suddenly went disastrously wrong, endangering the lives of yourself and those around you? Black Box Thinking drops you into that moment without the benefit of hindsight before it pulls you back out to see the bigger picture using the black box details that reveal where things truly went wrong.
    • What to do: When approaching innovation, it is important to use introspection. This book challenges the reader to take accountability and make the most out of their mistakes. To think to themselves: “What specifically happened this time around that made things turn out the way they did?” and “What can I change to avoid making this same mistake?” Those are the questions that will lead to impactful results. This change in mindset immediately places you in a better position to improve your processes. As noted in the book, “Studies have shown that we are often so worried about failure that we create vague goals, so that nobody can point the finger when we don’t achieve them. We come up with face-saving excuses, even before we have attempted anything.”


Learning from Mistakes


Black Box Thinking  transforms the managerial cliché of “learn from your mistakes” into a tangible approach to process innovation. It encourages you to evaluate how you do things and use that information to create realistic goals for continuous improvement. We all have “black boxes” to refer to in any process that we participate in. How will you use yours?


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