If you had to boil down Matthew Seyd’s Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance to four words it would be the fairly unexceptional sounding ‘learn from your mistakes’. What makes it such a good read, however, is not only the lively range of examples but also the time he takes to probe into why people often don’t learn from mistakes. Saying you should is one thing. Understanding why people don’t however is necessary to turn those words into action.
With examples ranging across transport (airline crashes feature, as is almost de rigueur in these sorts of books), sport, health care and elsewhere, Seyd argues that, “if we wish to fulfill our potential as individuals and organisations, we must redefine failure … failure is a means – sometimes the only means – of learning, progressing and becoming more creative”. Or we need to stop being defensive about failure and afraid of admitting it – and instead embrace it and talk about it openly.
The ‘right way of doing things’ can’t become a (literal or figurative) holy script always to be followed because it is the script. That comes with obvious echoes for Liberal Democrats where ‘the right way to campaign’ is often handled in just this way, rather than treated as something always to be rooted in evidence. Hence the discussion of this book in my pamphlet Targeting Plus.
In his book Seyd makes a good point about the much hyped marginal gains approach. It only works if your basic approach is right, as otherwise it leads up a cul-de-sac where no number of marginal gains can get you to the performance you want. It is like climbing a low hill and topping out well before you reach a mountain top height.
Where Seyd is at his weakest in Black Box Thinking is in fleshing out the practical changes required to embrace failure, such as changes to legal liability or rules for promotions. But he does clearly sketch out the need to make such changes.
If you like this, you might also be interested in Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction.
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