Book Review: Black Box Thinking - Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance

This book is a compelling read on innovation and high performance across many industries: sports, healthcare and aviation amongst others, all approached from an unusual starting point - failure.

“Learning from failure has the status of a cliché. But it turns out that, for reasonsboth prosaic and profound, a failure to learn from mistakes has been one of the single greatest obstacles to human progress. Healthcare is just one strand in a long, rich story of evasion. Confronting this could not only transform healthcare, but business, sports, politics and much else besides. A progressive attitude to failure turns out to be a cornerstone of success for any institution.”

From the extremely moving first chapter to the very end, Matthew Syed tells the inside story of how success really happens and how we cannot grow unless we learn from our mistakes.

He commences by comparing the industries of aviation and healthcare. The following statistics are mind-boggling:

“In 2013, there were 36.4 million commercial flights worldwide carrying more than 3 billion passengers, only 210 people died.

In contrast over a million patients each year are injured by errors during hospital treatment in the USA and 120,000 patients actually die.”

These figures are placed in stark context:

What these numbers say is that every day, a 747, two of them are crashing. Every two months, 9-11 is occurring,’ he said. These figures place preventable medical error in hospitals as the third biggest killer in the USA - behind only heart disease and cancer.”

Quite simply, the reason for the wide disparity in errors is due to the fact that the medical industry in the USA fails to admit and learn from its mistakes, consequently they are repeated on a frightening and on-going basis.

Conversely, the aviation industry actively rewards an admission that a mistake has been made and consequently learns and progresses.

The book explores in detail the psychological issues that influence the learning process and includes issues of culture as well as leadership:

“It is by getting the balance right between top-down strategy and a rigorous adaptation process that you hit the target. It is fusing what we already know, and what we can still learn.”

The concept of the growth-mindset is also explored, the concept that states success boils down to hard work and practice, talent is an indispensable attribute but not the deciding factor, just ask David Beckham:

“When people talk about my free kicks they focus on the goals,’ he said. ‘But when I think about free kicks I think about all those failures. It took tons of misses before I got it right.’

People in a growth-mindset, on the other hand, tend to believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through hard work.

However, fixed-mindset decisions are ones that reinforce the tendency to continue doing what we’ve always done.

The paradox of success, the book concludes, is that it is rooted in failure, we learn by doing and adapting:

“Evolution.. is driven by failure. But if we give up when we fail, or if we edit out our mistakes, we halt our progress no matter how smart we are. It is the Growth Mindset fused with an enlightened evolutionary system that helps to unlock our potential; it is the framework that drives personal and organisational adaptation.”

It is a gripping read for everyone who is interested in self improvement on personal, team and organisational levels - the conclusion is simple, we learn by doing, and moreover, we cannot grow unless we are prepared to learn from our mistakes and to do so requires a massive effort to surmount the many psychological and organisational hurdles that stand in our way!

A short video of Matthew Syed and his description of the book can be found here: