Book Depository: Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

I didn’t find this book at ROLI, but Matthew Syed’s everywhere these days and this one looked like it might be worth a glance.

Matthew Syed is a tall man with no hair. His book is full of this kind of observation that never goes anywhere: the muscular build of a bereaved man; the hairstyle of a pilot who committed suicide. Here we are, forensically deconstructing the aftermath of a medical accident; suddenly, Syed jump-cuts to a widower’s eyes, welling as his tapering fingers tremble.

This gives the reader two problems. First, the central message of this book seems claustrophobic and insincere because he is constantly distracting us from it. Second, these soft-focus vignettes sit poorly with the tragic flavour of much of its material. Sometimes they feel voyeuristic. At other times, when you feel Syed is building up to a killer punch, he pulls it. This surgeon’s tyranny in an operating theatre nearly killed somebody. His obstruction of a subsequent investigation nearly leads to more deaths. But remember, he’s a hero. They’re all heroes. Atul Gawande trod this ground years before Syed, and did it authentically, as a driver rather than a back-seat passenger.

Syed’s book, then, is a poor recruiter for a great employer. At its core is a simple, powerful and universal message about the power of scientific inquiry. Here again, though, some flaws are unforgivable. Central to a writer’s integrity is a clear and honest use of words. You can’t tell your readers that science is what they need in their lives and then, in the next sentence, cut off its limbs to fit your bed.

Syed refers to ‘open-loop’ and ‘closed-loop’ thinking in a way that, for no good reason, inverts the established meaning of these terms. Hence, a ‘closed-loop’ system which, to the millions of us with technical training, is something that is ‘closed’ by a path that provides corrective feedback, is now ‘closed’ in the sense of ‘guarded against feedback and the influence of evidence’. Did anybody edit this book?

Lesson one: collect data about everything you’re doing. The title ‘Black Box Thinking’ refers to the two data recorders that capture the cockpit voice and telemetry in aircraft, so that crashes and near-misses can be better understood. Dispassionate forensic analysis of this data provides vital information about what went wrong. If you don’t have data, you’re reliant on lucky guesses to prevent disaster, and highly susceptible to the interference of people with their own agendas.

Lesson two: depersonalise this information, and don’t use it to shame people. The fear of shame leads to the deliberate concealment of errors, so everybody loses opportunities to learn. Humans are fallible under stress, and the first duty of a crash investigator is to improve flight safety. Before critical failures, there are near-misses, and people must be allowed to report and challenge these without fear. The exemplary attitude in aviation allows mechanical problems to be caught at an early stage. Best practice is also improved in the cockpit. In-flight checklists control the narrowing of a pilot’s concentration under stress; improved human factors fix problems with the flying controls; Crew Resource Management addresses the psychological difficulties of cockpit hierarchy. This is why, even as aircraft become more complicated, and the skies more congested, civil aviation gets safer.

Lesson three: learn by building, make marginal gains, iterate often, create theories and try to falsify them. Syed summarises with unusual concision, ‘If I want to be a great musician, I must first play a lot of bad music. If I want to become a great tennis player, I must first lose lots of tennis games. If I want to become a top commercial architect known for energy-efficient, minimalist designs, I must first design inefficient, clunky buildings.’ Nobody gets great without a lot of practice. If you’re a product company, solicit feedback from customers at a really early stage, while you’re a bit embarrassed by your offering: you’ll learn if you’re doing a really great job designing the wrong thing.

On the subject of iteration, there is another use of the term ‘Black Box’ that is more commonly employed by engineers. A Black Box model is one in which a system is characterised merely by measuring and relating its inputs to its outputs, without attempting to understand the internal process that connect them. This might have been woven into the central chapters on evolution and marginal gains. Here, in many places, it would have bolstered the book, but it doesn’t. The dual meaning is dismissed in a footnote on Page 33 and never mentioned again.

In a central chapter, Syed notes that Unilever employed physicists and biologists to approach a difficult optimisation problem from two directions. Detergent granules are produced by firing a hot, pressurised liquid through a nozzle into air, where it rapidly solidifies and lands as a powder. The powder has to have the right grain size and consistency, and be adequately mixed, so the nozzle design is critical.

First, as Syed narrates it, physicists tried to characterise how the nozzle worked by modelling the flow of fluid through it. Their failure to build a decent nozzle highlighted the intractability of the problem. A team of biologists then successfully optimised the nozzle with a typical ‘black box’ approach: starting with an existing, poorly-functioning prototype; measuring the powder it produced, tweaking its design, and favouring the best-performing candidates over dozens of generations; finishing when it was as good as it seemed it was going to get. Hundreds of prototypes later, the ‘black box’ approach produced a great nozzle.

Syed narrates this as a victory for the empirical, evolutionary approach. Dyson, who created thousands of prototype vacuum cleaners in order to arrive at the DC01, is press-ganged into Syed’s war. Take that, theorists!

Unilever nozzle

Had Syed been a scientist — had he taken his own advice — he would have seen this story as more than a battle between schools of philosophy. Both teams’ methods are in alignment with best practice: each collected data, analysed it dispassionately, and thus approached the truth. One school attempted to find a theory to solve the general case, realised that their best guesses were false, and conceded defeat. The other school set out to attack a specific case — a smaller problem — and succeeded. My conclusions would be:

  1. Failure informed the approach that led to success, as it often does. Failure’s a great teacher, but a slow and expensive one.
  2. Reducing the scope of the problem allowed a different tool to be used, which succeeded. The price of success was the abandonment of a general understanding of the problem.

Unilever have a brilliant nozzle, and the method that produced it, but they’ll never know why, or whether there’s one they missed that produces three times as much powder. Every time they want to increase flow through the nozzle or reformulate their detergent, they’ll have to make a hundred more prototypes.

Lesson four: understand and eliminate cognitive dissonance. Resist the temptation to spin failure as a success, or deny that something went wrong. Accept such failures as an opportunity to learn and improve.

If you’re involved in a technical discipline, you’re already a servant of hard physical truths. No amount of post-event rationalisation will excuse a prototype that is not fit for sale. (Although, if you’re building Mars landers for the European Space Agency, it seems you can crash-land at every attempt, act as though you succeeded, and continue to get funding, but I’m talking about real jobs.)

An external perspective of scientific method may help a wider audience to discover it. There are certainly pickings in this book for technical readers, but it’s principally for an audience who don’t get, or even seek, the same class of feedback from their work that the technologist must. Recommend it to your boss. Next time you have a corridor conversation, though, remember that ‘closed-loop’ is open-loop, ‘open-loop’ is closed-loop, and ‘black-box’ means collecting and responding to data. Or ‘science’.

Book Depository: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Charles Duhigg’s book creaks under the examples he throws at the wall to support any observation. They are wearisome after a while. This book could have been stated just as effectively as a pamphlet, so here it is.


The habit loop is what happens when a sensory trigger precipitates a routine, which then leads to a reward of some kind. Over time, neural connections that link the trigger to the routine are strengthened in anticipation of the next reward, until the routine happens without conscious thought. Animals can be trained to follow surprisingly complex routines by exploiting the habit loop.

A keystone habit is a single change introduced into a daily routine. It exploits the habit loop to precipitate a small change. The reward from this can be used to power ever-larger changes.

Putting a piece of fruit on your desk to trigger a health regime, so you don’t go searching for snacks, is a simple example. Keeping a register of things you eat is another. At the company level, as Paul O’Neill did with Alcoa, you might be able to focus the organisation on one goal because that goal necessitates other changes you want to see. In the case of Alcoa, the goal was zero accidents. This required transformations in the chain of command and in industrial processes that enabled Alcoa to become much more successful and less wasteful, without these being explicit goals.

Exploit the habit loop when you can. Reduce the change you want into one keystone habit, or to improve one metric, or to make one difference.

In the long term, self-discipline has more influence on long-term success than intellectual ability. Willpower is like a muscle:

  1. It develops and improves with practice;
  2. It can tire through overuse, leading to a speculative explanation for high-flying businessmen and senior politicians regularly making spectacularly poor decisions in their personal lives.
  3. You can burn it out altogether for a while, after which it’s weakened and slowly recovers.

Willpower, like habit, is fed through positive reinforcement. It requires a personal reason for applying it to complete the habit loop. Any kind of reward will suffice, but you need a carrot even if you already have a stick.

Willpower is vulnerable to pressure. To form new habits under hard conditions, train with those conditions in mind. Rehearse particularly stressful encounters or difficult situations that upset you. Plan for when you struggle with willpower and replay successful scenarios like videos in your mind’s eye. They will become a better habit.

Starbucks sees its service as more important than the quality of its coffee. It trains employees, some of whom have anger problems, using the LATTE method (listen; acknowledge; take action; thank the customer; explain). This serves a social purpose too. Using this method, staff write a plan about how they’ll deal with an abusive customer, and it helps them to maintain their professionalism under fire.

In An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change (Nelson and Winter), the case is made that companies aren’t families, but battlefields in a civil war. A functional equilibrium is established with a network of truces between ambitious people. These may work when it’s business as usual to the extent that they’re impossible to change. However, they are too rigid for organisational improvement, and may break down entirely in a crisis. Disaster is then inevitable. The 1987 King’s Cross fire, and the Fennell Report after it, illustrates a dysfunctional organisation in a crisis, and a way to transform it. Desmond Fennell fanned a media circus and allowed people to be shamed in public. It can be worth stirring up a catastrophe rather than letting it die down because, when people are vulnerable, it is rare opportunity to face failure, make changes, and establish new rules and habits.

Some social movements succeed while others fail. Three things are needed: friendships between individuals, a community with specific, identifiable interests, and leadership that is able to divest power to the ranks as it inspires. Rosa Parks, The Montgomery bus boycott and Martin Luther King are the archetypical example. Rosa Parks was not the first black woman to be arrested on a bus, but her high social standing, combined with a creeping awareness of the Civil Rights movements, was enough to trigger change. Leadership of such a movement has to be able to establish a strong culture, and then stand back so that it can be owned and led by its people.

If you can include a core of religious faith, as the Civil Rights movement did, and as Alcoholics Anonymous does, you provide a stronger way of displacing destructive cycles of habit with helpful, community-focused ones.

Weak ties, soft power, and peer pressure are how individuals advance themselves. Weak ties are acquaintances and friends of friends: these networks get people their next job or their customers. Soft power is power that influences rather than coerces: the kind that makes you attend an event because you think that certain people will expect you to.

With Space In Mind

Estuary at Maroochydore, Qld.

About four years ago, I hacked together a web site so that my father could promote his art online. His operation is now beginning to get more serious, as galleries exhibit his work, he gets media attention, and other people start to manage various parts of what is becoming a business.

Hand-hacked HTML and Python scripts no longer work in such an environment, so I’ve had to migrate his site over to WordPress to permit third parties to manage its content. I’m astounded at how far WordPress, and the infrastructure it’s built on, has come in the last few years. Back in 2003, I wrote my own CMS for Supperware using acres of php that provided minimal functionality. Now I’m using textpattern here just because it’s easy, I don’t blog much anymore, and I can’t be bothered with anything else.

The point is this: please take a look. I’m not going to vouch for his website, but David Supper’s pretty good.