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Book review: Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

Subtitled ‘Marginal gains and the secrets of high performance’, this book is all about succeeding through failure.

This is a 2015 book, but I’ve only just got around to reading it. Perhaps that’s the first mistake for me to learn from.

Taking the idea from ‘black box’ flight recorders, Matthew Syed explores the nature of failure and how it teaches us to be better. He tells the stories of a routine operation gone wrong, and wrongful convictions, among other detailed true stories.

The crux of the book, for me, is the section called Small Steps and Giant Leaps, which carry a strong message for anyone in business. If you are a believer in the sayings “the devil’s in the detail” and “look after the pennies”, this section will appeal to you.

For organisations beyond aviation, it is not about creating a literal black box; rather, it is about the willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit.

Matthew Syed in Black Box Thinking

The chapter Marginal Gains talks about the now-famous story of how Sir David Brailsford turned around the fortunes of British competitive cycling. He focused on marginal gains, achieving one improvement after another until the British Cycling team, and Team Sky, where he was the team principal, was on top of the world.

In any business, large or small, achieving marginal gains can contribute to an overall performance improvement.

In the chapter How Failure Drives Innovation, Syed tells the story of how James Dyson invented his bagless vacuum cleaner. He discovered that all traditional vacuums started to fail as soon as they sucked up their first dust, which lined the bag and blocked the filter. He realised that removing the bag would be a great innovation and revolutionise the product.

Full of many real world stories, this is a great read, which concludes with the notion of redefining failure as an important part of learning and improving.

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