Like many people in January I have just booked flights for a summer break abroad and already looking forward to topping up my levels of Vitamin D. It reminded me of a trip to the same place a couple of years ago and a fascinating book that I picked up at the airport shop. Buying new books for the trip is all part of the experience for me and as a bookworm a holiday is a time I cherish when I can soak up the sun whilst my brain soaks up new words.

On this particular trip I picked up a copy of ‘Black Box Thinking’ by Mathew Syed. Many years ago I read his first book ‘Bounce’, which I thoroughly enjoyed and keen to see what else he had to say Black Box Thinking landed in my purchase pile. Bounce unpicks the ‘talent vs. practice’ debate regarding elite performance in sport. A concept that he is expert in based on his sporting career and crosses over with the work of Carol Dweck on growth mindset.

Syed encourages us to look at what really makes a champion. Practice, or ‘purposeful practice’ to be more precise, that begins early, often produces what we commonly refer to as ‘talent’. Syed examines how we label someone as ‘talented’ when we see the final result. What we aren’t necessarily as aware of, are the hours and hours of practice that lead up to the moment of glory in various sporting and musical arenas.

Bounce talks about the importance of feedback and the power of a long-term growth mind-set, two key themes I am equally as passionate about and understand the importance of. As a learning professional and entrepreneurs myself it is essential that I revisit this on a daily basis. By adopting growth mind-set I am able to continue to get out of my comfort zone, ‘fail’ then reflect and correct in order to continue to develop my business.

As someone who, lets just say, makes friends with health anxiety from time to time and isn’t too keen on flying, it probably wasn’t the best choice. Black Box Thinking draws quite a lot of comparison between the catastrophic failures of the airline industry and healthcare system. There’s a powerful juxtaposition in thinking between the two industries – aviation uses disaster to learn and make improvements and as a result, has an exceptional safety record.

The healthcare industry on the other hand, is less open and transparent and is marred by a culture of blame. Syed uses very powerful stories from both industries that are rooted in disaster.


So what about the book? Was it any good? Why would you want to read it? Personally I loved it and if you’re a fan of reading around the components of high performance, then this is a must. Did I learn anything new? Fundamentally no. Did it stir up my thinking? Yes. Did it change the way I think about failure? Absolutely. Did it influence the way I approach my work and my business? Without a doubt.

If it hadn’t I wouldn’t be here now as ”failing’ every single day and loving it because I am learning and growing – step by step, day by day. There are many snippets that I would love to share and they are illustrated with some great stories that (despite my personal fears and phobias) really helped to highlight the point.

Here are a few of the key themes I took away:

  • We need to view failure differently if we’re to learn from it. As the title suggests, the black box is crucial to make sure the mistake doesn’t happen again. How do we translate this metaphor to our organisations and personal transformation?
  • An open and honesty culture is critical, so that failure is praised and not stigmatised. We need to interrogate the error and not the person. Help everyone learn from mistakes and not just the person involved.
  • New systems only make a difference if the collective mind-set is right. Yes we can change processes, but if people are not in the right mind-set to engage with them, it’s a waste of time.
  • Where there is a probability of error and high impact, it is even more important we learn from it. Think about senior leaders. The best ones role model Blackbox Thinking by holding their hands up to an error and then sharing the learning, not covering it up with a corporate speech.
  • Look for opportunities to take baby steps. The principles of marginal gains can really help us to continuously improve outcomes in the workplace. We must be willing to test assumptions so that we can make changes that make a difference.

If you are fed up of making the same mistakes, of getting the same feedback and are ready to start taking the first steps to transformation – you, your team or your organisation then get in touch

Jo x

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