Quote of the book: ‘Errors have many different meanings, and call for different types of response depending on context, but in all of their guises they represent invaluable aids with the potential to help us learn.’

I always encounter the same problem each time that I read a Matthew Syed book. His ideas can be controversial and against the common societal norm and this makes them hard to share with others. What makes this much harder is that his arguments and opinions are so well presented and backed up by scientific research that any attempt on my part to echo them can appear clumsy and incomplete. That’s the thing about Matthew Syed. You don’t really appreciate his diligent and comprehensive work until you try to put all the pieces together yourself.

As a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, Jon Ronson and Daniel Coyle, I can say with some authority that Syed brings something much different to the non-fiction genre. Unlike others, his work makes you want to read more and delve deeper into his ideas. Similar books present themselves as a final product or a conclusion. Syed empowers the reader to take a closer look and the wealth of material usually provided at the end of his work enables the reader to easily do so.

Another chief strength of his work is that it is much more relatable. The presence of real life narratives and stories in his books make them much more than a cold scientific proposition. Sure, he throws in some popular news stories and well known historic events. But, as I began reading Black Box Thinking, it was the everyday stories that reminded me of Syed’s more human approach.

The book begins in an explosive manner with Syed relating to us the tale of 37 year old Elaine Bromiley, a woman who could easily have become just another medical statistic. Her story is just one of many mixed in with the examples of aviation history, operating theatres, courtrooms and classrooms around the world. Thanks to the success of his previous work, Syed’s increased profile has opened many more doors for him so that he can also take us inside the world of F1 racing teams and the Team Sky cycling set up and the mind of billionaire inventors like James Dyson. All of these stories are relevant case studies that allow us to seriously examine modern day society’s tentative approach to failure and mistakes and we often stagnate ourselves as a society by refusing to face up to them.

‘Society, as a whole, has a deeply contradictory attitude to failure. Even as we find excuses for our own failings, we are quick to blame others who mess up.’

A popular Albert Einstein quote tells us that ‘the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting the same result,’ and this quote is interesting in the context of Syed’s book. Like many, I would have thought that this was more of an individual problem in the world today but Syed proves that this form of ‘insanity’ is rife throughout major organisations too. Yet despite this obvious theory we still bury our heads in the sand when faced with repeated and familiar failures. Syed rightly points to politics, the medical profession, the business world and even the judicial system as classic examples of how damaging and how ingrained these approaches to mistakes actually are.

In a very convincing manner, Syed picks apart the common human psyche and our tendency to think in ‘closed loops.’ He then highlights that it is often the best and brightest of us who tend to entrap ourselves in this black hole of thought. Investment bankers holding on to bad stocks and senior doctors come in for much slack in this regard. Then he shows us how some ‘black box thinking’ can help us avoid the pitfalls of this viral ignorance.

Syed goes on to encourage a healthy mix of ‘bottom-up’ thinking with ‘top-down’ through an interesting anecdote about a factory floor nozzle. Basically, all the expertise and theory in the world is no match for on the ground application. One hand washes the other in the pursuit of developing success.

Black Box Thinking is the book that all of us need in a time when many major world systems are failing. It is a compass that points us in the right direction of progress and it does so in a humble manner. Importantly, Syed offers no quick fix to any of our problems. He talks of James Dyson who failed over five thousand times before he created his dual cyclone hoover. He points to the countless lives lost in the aviation industry that make it one of the safest today. He lifts the curtain on major corporations and successful sports teams to show how they turn the tiniest failures into huge collective wins.

Syed’s books so far have lived up to their hype as life-changing. They open up important conversations and ask thought provoking questions. They really do alter your view of the world and its unseen mechanisms. If you work with people, you will be moved to think differently about how people can stumble forward together in the right direction as opposed to living the illusion of ‘smooth sailing.’

Would I recommend this book to a friend?

Yes. It will change how you look at the world both on a individual and global scale. In many ways, Matthew Syed has taken up the baton of his previous work and once again shown us how we can create better environments for progress. This is a must read for anyone who works as part of a large organisation.

Afterthoughts

I would rank Matthew Syed’s first book, Bounce, as one of the best non-fiction books that I have ever read and it has had a profound effect on how I work with others today. Bounce makes an excellent read in conjunction with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code and Carol Dweck’s Mindset. For me, these books are must reads for any parent, teacher or coaches out there who want to be the best that they can be.

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