black box thinking

Black Box Thinking: Towards an Organisational Growth Mindset

Posted on December 2nd, 2016

No one ever sets out to fail or to do a bad job, and yet inevitably factors can conspire to turn even the best-laid plans awry. How do you and your organisation handle failures when they occur? The answer is more important than you might think.

In his recent book, Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed compares and contrasts the attitudes and responses to failure within the airline industry and the healthcare sector. In both sectors there are potentially disastrous consequences when mistakes occur, and yet approaches differ greatly…

Option 1: The Airline Industry

In the airline industry every plane is fitted with a black box which provides an accurate record of every action and conversation which takes place on the flight deck, and from which it is possible to determine the exact cause or sequence of events leading up to any incident.

Following any accident, it is standard airline policy to then analyse the data stored on the black box and share the findings with the industry. This is a practice which, despite the very obvious dangers inherent in air travel, has contributed to the industry’s phenomenal safety record – with a reported accident rate of only 0.23 per million take offs in 2014.

Option 2: The Healthcare Sector

Within the healthcare sector however, Syed reports a very different approach. Here there is far less transparency, less willingness to learn from mistakes and share lessons with colleagues.

Hence a very different safety record exists, with preventable medical errors listed as the third biggest killer in western countries. In fact, it has recently been reported that in 135 cases last year surgeons actually operated on the wrong part of the patient’s body.

The Royal College of Surgeons commented, ‘Learning from mistakes and using best practice and guidance to avoid such errors should be the priority of every medical and surgical team across the country.’

‘Fail Fast, Fail Often’?

Much has been written and talked about on the subject of failure. A few years ago ‘Fail Fast, Fail Often’ became the mantra in Silicon Valley, with high achievers and leadership icons across all sectors proclaiming the importance of failure in the process leading up to their success.

James Dyson for example famously reported making 5,127 mistakes before he eventually succeeded in creating the dual cyclone vacuum cleaner.

  • Colonel Harland David Sanders was fired from dozens of jobs before founding a fried chicken empire.
  • Thomas Edison’s teachers told him he was “too stupid to learn anything.”
  • A young Henry Ford ruined his reputation with a couple of failed automobile businesses.
  • While developing his vacuum, Sir James Dyson went through 5,126 failed prototypes and his savings over 15 years.
  • Walt Disney was fired from the Kansas City Star because his editor felt he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”

More here – “29 Famous People Who Failed Before They Succeeded

But the key to success in any field is not simply to endorse your own failure. This is clearly nonsensical – just imagine the NHS taking ‘Fail Fast, Fail Often’ as its new motto! (Or for that matter any sales team!)

Rather, as Syed argues, we should endeavour to develop a healthy relationship to failure – so that we can respond productively when mistakes and setbacks do occur.

“You can build motivation by breaking down the idea that we can all be perfect on the one hand, and by building up the idea that we can get better with good feedback and practice on the other,” says Syed.

With examples ranging from Mercedes’ Formula One Team to Google, Syed argues that some of the world’s most innovative organisations and high-performing individuals “interrogate errors as part of their strategy for future success.”

James Dyson entrepreneur
James Dyson – By Michiel Hendryckx, via Wikimedia Commons
Towards a ‘No-Blame’ Culture – the NHS

We mentioned the healthcare sector above, and if the sector does come under heavy criticism in Syed’s book, there seems to have been some response recently to criticism of its high-blame culture.

In fact in July this year, the Health Service Ombudsman published a report arguing that ‘the NHS needs to build a culture which gives staff and organisations the confidence to find out if and why something went wrong so that they can learn from it.’

The report, ‘Learning from Mistakes’, highlighted two key areas for focus:

  1. Develop investigative competence

In the words of the report, “complaints about avoidable harm and death need to be investigated thoroughly, transparently and fairly to make service improvements possible… Any staff involved in the incident and investigation process should be engaged and supported.”

  1. Build a culture which encourages investigation

In addition to developing investigative competence, the Ombudsman report stressed that there must be a parallel focus on creating a positive, no-blame culture. “The NHS needs to build a culture that gives staff and organisations the confidence to find out if and why something went wrong and to learn from it.”

Towards an Organisational Growth Mindset

The NHS deals with the question of people’s lives, and there is understandably more sensitivity around issues of blame and responsibility. But no matter what sector we belong to, all organisations searching for long-term success must take responsibility for continuous learning and improvement.

One of the best ways to frame this responsibility is in terms of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s work on mindset. Originally used to describe the way in which individuals approach intelligence and learning, Dweck’s contrast of the fixed vs growth mindset can easily be extended to the organisational cultures within which those individuals participate.

Matthew Syed actually uses the fixed vs growth mindset distinction in his own work on Black Box Thinking (see video below). The point is that we should try to shift the mindset of our organisations towards more of a ‘growth mindset’ – one that views errors, mistakes and subsequent investigations as important aspects of organisational learning, rather than as troublesome processes to be overlooked or avoided.

How Can You Begin?

The NHS recommendations above provide an excellent illustration of what might be involved in shifting an organisation towards more of a ‘growth mindset’. But it doesn’t need to be as comprehensive as this.

A good starting point could be to audit your own organisational mindset and attitude to mistakes. Hold an open, ongoing forum with colleagues, and be alert in everyday situations when things go wrong. It doesn’t matter if it’s an entire organisation or just a sales team. When mistakes occur, when that business isn’t won, be alert to how your team respond. There may be an opportunity for managing a shift towards more of a ‘growth mindset’ culture.

Learn more about LDL Management Training, including our Senior Management Programme.

You can also download our free 3-Part Management Training Course for a comprehensive introduction to the fundamentals of good management.

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