Black Box Thinking: How to learn from your mistakes

Black Box Thinking: How to learn from your mistakes

Published 13th April 2018 by Rob Davidson, founder of Davidson and executive coach

Black Box Thinking; mind-setWhen you make a mistake, how do you respond to it? Do you acknowledge the mistake and see it as a learning opportunity? Or do you see it as something to hide and be ashamed of?

I recently presented a workshop with some of Davidson’s valued contacts in Sydney on Black Box Thinking where we looked at the concept, which was termed by author Matthew Syed in his book of the same name.

“The way we conceptualise success, the way we think about success, radically shapes the behaviours that we deploy in order to achieve success,” Syed said.

Black Box Thinking is inspired by the aviation industry which has a safety system in place where each aircraft is fitted with two “black boxes” – one which records the technical data of the flight and another which records the interactions between pilots and co-pilots.

In the event of an accident or near-miss, the pilots of planes involved voluntarily submit a report on what happened and the black boxes from each aircraft are analysed in a bid to understand what caused the incident and how the industry can mitigate against it happening again.

Syed said the taking an approach to learning from your mistakes is indicative of having a ‘growth mind-set’ which means the industry is anxious not to cover-up accidents but to see them as ‘precious learning opportunities.’

Different mind-sets in numbers

“Decades of institutional learning driven by this growth mind-set, this responsibility to learn in a complex world…has driven an incredible safety record,” he said.

“At the beginning of the last century, aviation was one of the riskiest forms of transportation. In 1912, more than half of US Army pilots died in crashes in peacetime…but decades of institutionalised learning has driven the accident rate to a place wherein 2014, for the major airlines, there was one crash for every 8.3 million take-offs.

“I want to suggest that is a cultural and psychological achievement driven by this dynamic mind-set.”

In contrast to this, Syed said the healthcare sector has a different ethos where talent alone is considered enough for success and this closed down a growth mind-set, leading individuals to be less likely to learn from their mistakes.

“So when there is a mistake or a sub-optimal outcome, that is quite threatening to individuals,” he said. “And instead of saying how can we change the procedures to make sure the same mistake never happens again… there is a tendency to become defensive, to try and cover up their mistake because you don’t want to look untalented or to become self-justifying.”

Looking at the data, Syed said the Journal of Patient Safety, showed that in the United States hospitals, there were 400,000 people killed in “preventable medical error” every year.

He argues of course, that if the medical professional had the same approach to learning from their mistakes that the aviation industry has – if they saw them as opportunities for improvement and learnings rather than something to be covered up, the numbers would likely be very different.

What story does your black box have to tell?

Syed’s concept, while applied to sectors is equally applicable to individuals. We all have our own black box and those willing to open up their black box and look honestly at the story it has to tell are able to learn lessons which will help them develop personally and professionally.

The fact is none of us wants to fail. It is not something any sane person would set out to do. But failure is also a stepping stone to success when used properly. Black box thinking helps you to do just that.

“When you realise that you haven’t got all the answers, you start to do the experiments, to look at the data,” Syed said. “It starts to orient the mind individually and collectively towards the learning experiences that always exist out there if we are open to them. That’s the mind-set revolution I would like to see.”

Is this a new way of thinking you will apply?


By Rob Davidson, founder of Davidson and executive coach

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *