Approximate time to read: 3 minutes

As my very first book review, I’ve been reading Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance by Matthew Syad.

Skipping any introduction this goes straight into a true story of a healthy mother of two who has a routine operation but, as a result of mistakes made, dies. As a father of two myself it’s quite a traumatic start to the book but is here to demonstrate the initial discussion point – mistakes and how they’re dealt with.  It starkly contrasts the aviation industry with healthcare (specifically hospitals). Whereas the first learn from mistakes, sharing that knowledge more broadly, healthcare does otherwise – with Doctors and Surgeons wishing to protect their reputation they will not admit to failings, hence, nobody learns and the mistakes continue.  Some states in the US do have an open policy in Hospitals, allowing any noticed problems to be reported (and some hospitals have thousands of things reported every month as a result) – even Doctors reporting themselves – leading to great understanding and learning. And, guess what? Less insurance too as people are less likely to sue if they are told the truth – more often than not suing someone only occurs so that they can get at the truth.

Later on the book moves onto why mistakes are hidden, such as cognitive dissonance. As with the rest of the book lots of examples are used and, in this case, this includes Tony Blair and his insistence, even today, that war with Iraq was the right thing to do. By constantly “reframing” the argument he has held his belief. Indeed, it’s not that he’s trying to hide the truth but he’s now firmly of the believe that he’s right – sometimes it’s the only way to accept the decisions that you’ve made. Only last week a radio news item was talking about David Cameron’s decisions about Libya. It came as no surprise, after having read this book, that he simple reframed his argument and still believes the decisions made were right.

Next, it discussed hows small improvements can make huge changes (i.e. marginal gains). The Team Sky cycling team are used as one of the examples, speaking with David Brailsford, a huge advocate of making minor changes to improve the whole. This was the technique used by the team to turn the UK cycling team into world champions – discovering the pillow that offered the best sleep and taking it with them to hotels, testing for the most effective type of massage gel, and teaching riders the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection.

This leads onto the opposite approach – there is only so far marginal gains can get you before you have to make a dramatic leap. The example used here are two mountains – a small and large one. The marginal gains will get you up that small hill but to make a big improvement you need to make a leap over to that second mountain. The example used here is Dyson – James Dyson’s cyclone based vacuum cleaner was a big step change from what had gone before.

So, you’re probably wondering, how are making improvements linked to mistakes? Because it’s only through making mistakes – and being bold enough to do so – that the big ideas can be realised. Dyson made thousands of prototypes of his cleaner before he got it right, for example. It’s through making mistakes and learning from them that we can make the truly right choices.

But before I try and summarise everything in this book, I’d better stop 😉 Needless to say this book is a fascinating look at human reaction to errors, how they’re dealt with and how to use mistakes to your advantage. It’s full of excellent examples from the links of Mercedes F1, Dropbox and the aforementioned Dyson and Team Sky, amongst many, many others. There are also many cross-references to the works of Ben Goldacre and Tim Harford, both of which are authors I read so the links to their own books provided a convenient and useful connection between ideologies. Many similar books tend to start off with some examples and then keep re-visiting the same ones, re-summarising them and, to be honest, they can get boring quite quickly. This is not the same here, whereas some are re-visited, if only to link something new that’s been learnt with a previous example, there are constantly fresh examples used, many of which are thanks to a lot of time invested by the author interviewing the people and organisations in question.

Needless to say I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and genuinely gives me “food for thought”. I’ve always been a big believer in accepting that mistakes happen and ensuring that they’re learnt from – seeing the huge different it can make, makes me even more determined to continue this path and even push it further.

Disclaimer: I was provided with this book, free of charge, by SocialBookCo but this has, in no way, influenced my review.

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