How Black Box Thinking Enables Innovation

Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success, by Matthew Syed discuss why some industry sectors and organizations succeed in using their mistakes as a spiral for innovation while others don’t.

Guess what? The first part is recognizing failure and mistakes when it occurs while not getting into a blame game. Syed compares how healthcare has a lot to learn from the aviation industry, where learning from mistakes is a natural part of aviation safety.

The author describes the evolution of aviation safety and how the many accidents during World War 2 as well as human errors during later years have resulted in safer aviation across the board (from technical updates to human training).

An interesting part of the book is the concept of marginal gains, breaking a big initiative into smaller manageable parts. I love what the Mercedes F1 team (studied in the book) says about it;

“People think things like engines are based upon high level strategic decisions, but they are not. What is an engine except many iterations of smaller components.”

The Mercedes team means that success is creating the most effective optimisation loop. Success happens by making smaller gains using data to develop technology and human interaction.

Another favourite concept from the book is the notion that innovative products are not created from scratch, it’s about applying existing technologies to new usages. The author mentions for example that the Google search engine was based on already existing ranking academic articles.

This concept can be seen today in innovative companies, such as Uber. By using existing technology that have been available for years, Uber has created a new innovative service. For example GPS, rating systems, mobile payment and taxis have been around, but never connected before.

The book is eye-opening and challenges the notion of the lone entrepreneur or inventor coming up with a game-changing idea that no one thought of. It’s iteration, leveraging existing technology and learning from mistakes that sparks innovation.

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