Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

Black Box Thinking: Yorkshire Powerhouse Score 9/10

Remarkable, dramatic, scary and frustrating in equal measure.

Who will gain the most from reading this book?

A leader of any type of venture or team that truly wants to continuously improve, and be the best they can.

Core Content

Black Box Thinking is one of the best books that dominates and dissects the topic of why our society and organisations are so incompetent and continuously repeat failure. Individuals and teams constantly blame other people, filling in the gaps that do not exist with our generalisations or guesswork.

The real genius of Black Box Thinking is that it could propel any reader into a lifetime of continuous improvement in every aspect of life that would be truly marvellous.

Habitually and culturally we attribute failure as a negative connotation, preventing individuals from trying new things in the first place, and then castigating them if they try and fail.

The contrast this book draws between the airline industry and the medical profession (hence the Black Box reference) is dramatic, scary and frustrating in equal measure.


The remarkable and impressive safety history of airlines appears to be built on a real ability to take mistakes and break them down to the root cause. At one level this is due to a culture created whereby continuous failure is simply not an acceptable option, at another the power of the black box recording technology leaves the lessons out there in the harsh glare with no place to hide.

However, the real learning is in the ability to create a whole population, airline pilots and related disciplines, whose culture firmly puts the greater good of their present and future colleagues and clients before any sense of self preservation.

This glowing endorsement of the human ability to truly be open about flaws for the greater good, and work to create systems that compensate for human frailty, contrasts hugely with the medical profession.

The medical profession does take the brunt of the poor examples in the book, but really that is due to the power of the literally fatal nature of the consequences of poor performance. The lessons can equally be applied to most business environments, particularly where continuous improvement is sought.

There are examples of individuals and teams that have adapted the black box techniques and improved life expectancy, but Matthew Syed also highlights tragic examples of those who have lost lives and loved ones through the ego of the medical profession, and their obsession with rank and seniority above fact.

Frustratingly the examples of loss then continue to show that, without the efforts of a few brave souls, some of them non-medical, the potential lessons and improvements that could benefit millions are lost through complacency or an unwillingness to contemplate fallibility.

If the reader can then tear themselves from the despair of those who fail and don’t learn to the shining light of the positive examples there are numerous lessons to be learned for everyday life as well as business ventures.

The idea of looking at an individual’s failure to achieve or their mistakes through the lens of ‘how did the wider organisation create’ either a framework, an attitude or a system that propelled them towards a poor performance, moves towards removing stigma. The focus then becomes on how to improve … and all others afterwards gain, then the failure actually becomes a massive plus.

Could a Yorkshire perspective improve this book?

The book is written in Canadian English with spellings to match, can catch you out every now and then.

Review Takeaway:

The way to remove ego from the continuous improvement process is through system design and training. Book reviews, Yorkshire Powerhouse

Click here for a quick link to purchase Black Box Thinking from Amazon

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