Black Box Thinking

How do organisations handle mistakes?

James Dyson is famous as a designer, inventor and entrepreneur; and he’s also famous for his mistakes.
Indeed, he made over five thousand of them, in trial and error, before the first Dyson vacuum cleaner appeared.
But he is fine about this.
‘Creative breakthroughs always begin with multiple failures. This brilliant book shows how true invention lies in the understanding and overcoming of these failures, which we must learn to embrace.’
The book he refers to is Matthew Syed’s recently-published ‘Black box thinking’ which chronicles the damage done to business by the growth of the blame culture in organisations, where mistakes cease to be creative.
(Oh, and leaves employees spending most of their working hours covering their backs.)
The title arises from the aviation industry which, in 1978, changed direction. In short, the United Airline 173 disaster of that year prompted the industry to adopt a different approach to disaster.
They introduced two black boxes into each aircraft to provide the evidence of the failure. And crucially, they also welcomed a change in attitude in the industry, so that errors were not denied, but regarded as learning experiences.
This stands in clear contrast to many organisations today where the dead hand of fear still exists in relation to error; with the result that mistakes are hushed up rather than learned from.
Syed’s book – and it’s hardly a new proposition – invites people and organisations to stop being afraid of failure. It suggests the need for new systems in place a) for identifying mistakes and b) for learning from them to avoid them happening again.
It’s hard to disagree, but one footnote:
It’s not just about systems.
Whatever the system, the external culture of the company is dependent on the internal culture of the leadership.
If, for instance, the CEO is the self-punishing sort, fearful of blame themselves – not uncommon – then that’s the climate they will create around them.
The world we create around us is the world at play within us.
Once we can admit and allow our own mistakes, and treat ourselves compassionately, we may be ready to help our organisation towards kind and creative black box thinking.