Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed – #ICBookClub review

August, 2017 

This month’s review comes from our former CIPR Inside Chair, Steve Murgatroyd, who shares his thoughts on Matthew Syed’s book Black Box Thinking, which was the book of choice for August 2017.

“I’m always keen to find the next book to read that will advance my learning and challenge my current thought process. Having recently read Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal and How Google works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenborg, I was contemplating what was next when I saw my old friends at CIPR Inside were starting a book club…too good an opportunity to miss out on.

Even though I didn’t vote for the book I eventually read, I’m always a fan of crowdsourcing the answer so got onto Amazon and waited for Black Box Thinking to arrive. With an hour commute to work and back twice a week I already had my plan down. A minimum of 20 pages there and back every day, so 80 pages a week…too easy.

Little did I know I’d end up wanting to stay sat on the tube all day because the book was so good.

Failure is such a taboo subject in most organisations, this book helps you to reframe failure to see it as a positive way to create change and innovation. I came away with lots of new ideas and thoughts to take into the office, topics like marginal gains, closed/open loop thinking and removing blame cultures are probably things you’ve heard about before but the way they’re described in this book really helps you to understand why they’re so important to being successful.
My personal favourite topic was cognitive dissonance, this is the idea that people (often senior) come up with an idea and implement it, when it doesn’t work they can’t accept it and create a narrative to explain why even though the evidence says they’re wrong…they are right.
The amount of time I’ve seen this in action had me nodding in agreement and shouting yes while I was sat on the tube. Since reading the book, I’ve have started rephrasing certain statements and approaching issues in a different way, knowing that cognitive dissonance or closed loop thinking may well be in play.

The irony of this book in my mind, is if I handed it to a manager who is showing all the negative symptoms of not accepting failure, closed loop thinking and playing a blame game, they may well not recognise it in themselves, and develop a narrative (using our friend cognitive dissonance) to make out like they are a perfect black box thinker and leading the way.
So the real question I’m working on is how do communicators break the closed loops, remove the blame game and help managers embrace failure? It’s not something every organisation is ready to do, but if this book is right…it’s something all of them need to do.”