Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance (Book Review)


  • This very popular book looks at the relationships between success, failure, and improvement.

  • Drawing from approaches used by aviation and sport, it suggests ways to improve how we think about our experience to learn how to do things better.
  • Unusually for a book review on this blog, this book is not aimed at project management professionals particularly, but falls more into the category of “general self help”. I reviewed it because so many of my project management professional friends told me that I should read it (including the PMO Flashmob Book Club night)!

What’s inside

  • The book contains several sections of several chapters each:
    • The Logic of Failure contrasts the relatively closed approach to failure generally found in healthcare with the more open approach found in aviation. It describes how success is usually built on failure, and how continued success can lead to stagnation of ideas.
    • Cognitive Dissonance looks at the reasons why people don’t learn from their experience. It explores the intellectual gymnastics we employ to convince ourselves we were right all along and don’t need to change.
    • Confronting Complexity compares the efficacy of considered design versus trial and error. It makes the case for testing our theories rather than seeking evidence to support our position.
    • Small Steps and Giant Leaps describes the concept of marginal gains, in which small improvements made across many areas combine into large improvements overall. It also looks at how failure can be harnessed to drive innovation.
    • The Blame Game looks at what happens when we indulge our temptation to come to make judgements and blame others for unfavourable events.
    • Creating a Growth Culture suggests how we can emulate successful people and teams to make improvements in our own lives and businesses.
  • The book is written to be accessible, using a friendly, conversational tone of voice.
  • In making extensive use of examples, at times it comes close to repeating itself and labouring the point. However it is clear that the author researched his subject extensively, in many cases talking directly to the originators of the ideas presented.
  • The language of the book is sometimes ambiguous – for example:
    • I initially thought that the “Black Box” in the title referred to “black box” systems as described in engineering. We don’t understand how these systems transform inputs into outputs. It turns out however that the author is referring to aviation “black box” flight data and voice recorders. He spends most of the book imploring the reader to gather and use evidence to improve future performance.
    • The author refers to “closed loop” and “open loop” thinking to denote approaches that ignore and use feedback respectively. This runs counter to engineering terminology, in which a “closed loop” system applies an error signal as feedback to make a correction to a process. I don’t know if the author’s usage is standard terminology in psychology, but I found it jarring, and had to stop and think every time the author uses the term.

Some of my favourite take-aways

I found many ideas that could usefully be applied to the field of project management. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • Rigid social hierarchies inhibit assertiveness. This creates situations in which the team can’t call out the boss – even in an emergency…
  • People conceal their mistakes because they know we all like to lay blame on others for their mistakes. This tendency destroys the very information we need to learn.
  • Failure is inevitable because the world is too complex for us to understand entirely. Failure is a rich learning opportunity because it violates expectations, allowing us to update our internal model of the world.
  • Systems need feedback in order to adapt to an intervention. The sooner they get the feedback, the more useful it is.
  • Learning from mistakes needs both a system to capture the information , and the mindset to make it work.
  • If people believe in a system that fails, they reframe the evidence (often with extreme distortions) to fit their beliefs. They find it easier to do this than to entertain the possibility they may have been wrong.
  • The more that people have invested intellectually and emotionally in a position, the more likely they are to reframe the evidence to suit their position. The more we have riding on our judgements, the more likely we are to reinterpret or ignore any new evidence that calls them into question
  • To become good at something, you must accept that first you will be bad at it, probably for quite a long time.

There are many more nuggets like this, but I’ll stop there or I would end up simply reproducing the entire book (!)

The Verdict

  • If you read the reviews on this book’s Amazon page, you will see some reviews that disagree with its contents on academic grounds, maybe because they run counter to recent thinking in psychology. However you will see many more reviews agreeing with me that this is a fascinating, well-researched book.
  • The book has many insights that can be applied to project management, and at the RRP represents great value for money.
  • I recommend it wholeheartedly to project management professionals, and in fact anyone who wants to improve their approach to life generally.
Full title:Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance
Author:Matthew Syed
Publisher:John Murray, 2015

Are coming to the end of a project? Do you want to make sure that your organisation learns from its delivery experience but you’re not sure how? Pragmatic PMO can help. Why not take a look at our “Learn lessons from your project” service? If that looks interesting, why not schedule a free 30-minute consultation to discuss how we can help you?

Author: Ken Burrell

Ken Burrell is a Programme and Portfolio Office (PMO) Professional, who through his company Pragmatic PMO makes targeted improvements to PMO practices to add value to Projects, Programmes and Portfolios. He provides senior management with the analysis they need to make decisions, and gives project and programme managers the support they need to deliver solutions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.