Black Box Thinking – book review

August 20th, 2017

In this week’s #ICBookClub, we discussed Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, a book about how true success can only be attained if we’re willing to learn from our mistakes. The book grabbed me from the first page with its real-life examples of failure that have led to grave consequences. It’s not always comfortable reading, but the purpose isn’t to highlight the mistakes, but the fact that as a society we’re not very good at learning from them.

From a very young age we’re taught to strive for perfection. And for many people in highly skilled professions, their career is wrapped up within their sense of self. Doctors for example spend years training and are revered for their knowledge and expertise. Admitting a mistake would cause a crisis of confidence. It sounds very narcissistic but research has found it to be a very real problem called cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a theory that the more firmly we hold beliefs, the harder it is to let them go when contradictory evidence is presented to us. Having to admit we were wrong doesn’t come naturally, we’d rather insist we were right. And this is particularly a problem for people in senior roles or positions of trust.

In fact, some of the real-life case studies featured in the book show that hierarchy, and a fear of challenging people that are senior to you, meant that junior employees didn’t put forward their concerns as strongly as they might have otherwise. I think there is a key take away for internal communicators here when dealing with senior stakeholders – it’s always worth putting yourself in their shoes and remembering they’ll feel they have a lot to lose by admitting they were wrong.

Another area the book covered was the perception that creativity comes from some kind of epiphany. But actually all of the creative minds in the world have built on existing ideas and made them better. Matthew talks about how Einstein, although undoubtedly a genius, wouldn’t have made the discoveries he had if he’d live centuries earlier. He was able to come up with his theories by disproving and building on ones that had come before.

And the book cites many studies that demonstrate this trial and error process yields results. For example, James Dyson didn’t invent the vacuum cleaner, but he made a far superior one that was currently available on the market. It’s something we’re slowly starting to see more of in businesses as well as internal communications especially with the launch of ESNs – I would always advise clients to run a pilot to test it before it’s fully finished, take on employee feedback and make improvements while it’s live. It’s no longer about perfection, especially when technology evolves so quickly and really, we should always be looking at ways of improving what we do.

Overall, the book made some good points although I did agree with other views from the #ICBookclub that it probably could have been shorter and became a bit repetitive towards the end. However, for me the case studies brought the subject matter to life and provided some key take-aways for internal communicators. But in all seriousness if you are a nervous flyer or are due an operation in the near future, you may want to give it a miss!

Categories: #ICBookClubBlack Box ThinkingCIPR insidecommunicationInternal communication

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