Sunday, 20 March 2016

Interesting Books: Black Box Thinking

Recently I finished reading Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success, by Matthew Syed.  To be honest, if I'd have seen it in a bookshop, I probably wouldn't have bought it.  It looks, on first glance, like one of these gung-ho, how-to-make-loads-of-money kind of books, which is briefly inspiring but turns out to be completely devoid of anything helpful.  However, I listened to a programme on Radio 4 which refers to it, and the programme was so interesting that I bought the book.

Originally, this came under the heading of 'other interests', completely unrelated to my bear-making.  I have always been interested in psychology, particularly the stuff about how people survive crisis situations - not in terms of practical skills, but mentally.  The Radio 4 programme linked to above, and Syed's book (particularly the first few chapters), made an incredibly fascinating comparison between the healthcare and aviation industries.  Syed's book is much broader, but part of the point was that strongly hierarchical systems can inhibit the way a group of people respond in a crisis.  When things go wrong and the situation develops into a sort of knife-edge, life-or-death scenario, even the most seasoned experts can get into trouble as they struggle with multiple setbacks and growing pressure.  A junior staff member on the sidelines might see very basic things going wrong, and yet feel reluctant to voice their concerns, given the seniority of the expert.  And if they do speak up, their concerns might be dismissed, or brushed aside, for the same reason.  The aviation industry, having recognised this problem (particularly in the investigations which followed the United Airlines 173 crash in 1978), has adapted to deal with it by creating training programmes which encourage juniors to speak up, and teach experts the importance of listening to disparate voices in critical situations.  There is no widespread recognition of this problem in the healthcare system as a whole however, and so efforts to deal with it have been patchy. 

As I said, Syed's book is wider than this.  His overarching point is that failure drives progress, because it forces us to identify and deal with the problems which hold us back.  Before this happens though, we've actually got to admit to having failed - which is far from easy, at either a professional or personal level.  Much of the book is devoted to the importance, and the difficulty, of admitting failure - and the consequences of not doing this.  In chapter 10 though, 'How failure drives innovation', he talks about how responding constructively to failure is basically the essence of creativity.

I love it when my weird, unrelated interests come together unexpectedly!

Syed looks at the examples of James Dyson creating the dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner, and Pixar - the animation company - which, in Finding Nemo, tried to streamline its process by cutting out the extensive 'trial and error' phase (this didn't work).  What characterises both of these successful enterprises is that they start by pulling apart an initial idea and exposing its weaknesses.  So you need an initial problem.  You also need the resolve to be able to test your proposed solution(s) again and again, continually subjecting it to criticism, until you have it right - and this can take many attempts.  Dyson's prototype vacuum cleaner apparently went through 5,127 prototypes.   It wasn't the idea which made him successful: there were other people who came up with, and patented, similar ideas, but he was the one who actually pushed those ideas and tested them to the point of success.

All this is very reminiscent of the messy, failure-strewn process of designing stuffed animals!  I guess I've always regarded 'trial and error' as a constructive thing, but if it goes on too long it becomes exhausting and disheartening.  This has made me think about it (in bear-making and in other areas of life) in a very different way. Black Box Thinking is a good book: interesting, thought-provoking, truely gripping in places, and highly relevant to anyone engaged in a creative, handmade business.  I definitely recommend reading it!

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