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Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

Date: Nov 16, 2020

Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

So as the title might suggest this book gets you thinking - Big Time!!

I normally read a book in around 3 weeks but this book took me at least 6 weeks to finish. Not because it was hard going, boring or uninteresting but purely because there was so much to absorb. Matthew Syed takes you through history, and how different industries and businesses have changed and evolved. Also why people that work in these places can behave and act the way they do.

The book starts with a story back in 2005 about a lady called Elaine Bromiley and how she was going in for a routine operation that sadly ended in her death. Not the beginning that you’d expect from a book! However, the positive intention behind this sad story was to understand why a totally preventable death happened. It looks at the processes and procedures around the operation at that time and how Healthcare versus Aviation behave so differently in the face of a disaster.

Aviation pulls every aspect of a disaster apart so that the whole industry, that means every pilot, will learn from what happened so it won’t happen again. Healthcare is a much more closed approach due to the fear of reprisal if they admit something has happened incorrectly. This isn’t directed at those in medicine but more at the culture and environment they are working within.

There are only 6 parts to this book but each part is integral to understanding why we as humans behave the way we do and why we behave differently in some situations.

There is a whole chapter called The Beckham Effect as in David Beckham, the footballer. It explains the learning process that David went through from a child to a professional footballer and his acceptance that to fail at something is a positive outcome because you can learn from it. As a footballer, even when he was performing at the highest level, he was renowned for being the one that stayed behind after training to practise even more. This meant that when, say a free kick, happened during a match, it was perfectly normal for his body and his mind to perform and manage the situation even though there was immense pressure on him at that exact moment.

The book also visits the processes behind the Team Sky Cycling and the British Olympic Cycling teams, and how small changes in all aspects of their lives, not just when they are training but even through to the type of pillow they use when sleeping away before a race, can have an overall positive effect on an athlete’s performance.

Did you know that it took James Dyson 5,127 cyclone prototypes before it was ready to be included in a vacuum cleaner? His idea actually originated from watching a man cut and plane wood and the machine he used to suck up most of the dust. Who knew! It was his acceptance of failure that lead him along the path to success. He didn’t see failure as a bad thing, but more a way to remove any flaws in the design so that it would do what he imagined that it could do.

The book definitely makes you sit up and take notice with other topics that it covers. For example, the Scared Straight project in the USA, where teenagers heading along a path of crime were taken to a prison to see where they could end up if they carried on in that direction. Or the fall out around the introduction of DNA tests and how the criminal justice arena and some judges struggled to accept that innocent people may have been serving time, because it went against the process and procedures they had followed for years to convict people.

The book ends with an update from Martin Bromiley, the husband of Elaine, and how her death has provided inspiration to others. I won’t say how but it truly is remarkable.


Helen x