During the last summer holidays, I read Matthew Syed’s book Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance.

The book doesn’t use “Black Box” like in science, computing or engineering, where it means that a system is viewed in terms of its input and output, without knowing how its internally working (see Wikipedia). According to Syed it is used “in a slightly different but related sense of the data recorder in an accident investigation. It is about the willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit. It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organizations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them.”

The book compares the “Black Box”-approach of the airline industry broadly with other industries and use cases. This means to

  • learn from mistakes
  • be open
  • «share what you learn» so others do not have to make the same mistakes
  • improve continuously through marginal gains

The content is divided in following chapters:

  1. The Logic of Failure
  2. Cognitive Dissonance
  3. Confronting Complexity
  4. Small Steps and Giant Leaps
  5. The Blame Game
  6. Creating a Growth Culture


Overall, it’s an inspiring book with topics about attitude and culture towards failure, cognitive dissonance and marginal gains which can fuel your dreams (innovation). Did you ask yourself why some people learn from mistakes and become better while others never seem to improve? Learning requires appropriate systems, culture and methods. On one hand, feedback is really important. On the other hand, it also requires an openness to failure. If the numbers, data and facts are simply ignored, the same mistake will happen over and over again. In an “open loop system” it is dealt openly with errors:  Data is collected and examined. From this, system-wide measures can then be taken. Use mistakes for progress!

It’s an exciting topic, well researched, simply written and understandable. The book is filled with so many great examples. I have to admit: Those examples are about the same thing over and over again and could therefore maybe a bit shorter.

If you’re looking for a book with step by step instructions how to learn from your mistakes, it’s probably not what you’re looking for. This book is all about starting a process in yourself! #change #grow #mindset #beliefs

What you learn can be applied everywhere. Change my mind!

Key Take-aways

  1. Feedback is key for improvement. “Clear feedback is the cornerstone of improvement.» (Sir David Brailsford, Team Sky General Manager, quoted in Black Box Thinking)
  2. The more “power” (experience, influence…) you have, the more is cognitive dissonance becoming a problem. Syed gives some terrifying examples in his book.
  3. Marginal gains based on real-world feedback create progress and improvement (e.g. nozzle paradox at Unilever, Dyson, David Beckham).
  4. «I realised early on that having a grand strategy was futile on its own. You also have to look at a smaller level, figure out what is working and what isn’t. Each step may be small, but the aggregation can be huge.” (Sir David Brailsford, Team Sky General Manager, quoted in Black Box Thinking)
  5. «Winners require innovation and discipline, the imagination to see the big picture and the focus to perceive the very small.” (Matthew Syed in Black Box Thinking)

Because I want other people to benefit too, I’ve released the book into the wild via bookcrossing.com and looking forward to read the next book of M. Syed, Rebel Ideas.


Rating: 4 out of 5.


Master in Business Innovation. B.Sc. Business Engineering|Innovation. Blogger. Traveller. Product Owner. Technology Strategy Manager. #ginvibes. Knight of Taste. Sports enthusiast. Foodie. Creative Kid. #iger. The guy behind inspiique.

1 Comment

Rebel Ideas - Book Review - inspiique · 15 August 2021 at 11:33

[…] finishing Black Box Thinking (see review here) I read another book by Matthew […]

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