Reflections: Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed and Good to Great by Jim Collins.

Black Box Thinking compares two worldviews: one where failure is feared and the other where failure is embraced as a learning opportunity.

Matthew Syed argues that often, in our subconscious state, give failure a makeover. We dress it up to make it look acceptable. One way we do this is by “selectively citing statistics which justify [our] cause, while ignoring the statistics that don’t.” Politicians do it all the time- but so does the rest of the world.

Cognitive dissonance is when our strongly-held beliefs are challenged.

Syed provides examples of the justice system. Convicts had been wrongfully accused and locked away. However, it took an incredibly long time for new evidence to be looked at. The much more accurate DNA testing proved convict’s innocence but this took a while before it was accepted. Unrealistic stories were made up of how someone else’s DNA was found all over the body and the convict’s was nowhere to be found because people so strongly believed that it was the convict. The felt that if the person was released, that they were letting a killer out (even though evidence was contradictory and that they got the wrong person). The also felt that it was the only way they could live with themselves. I know I wouldn’t want to be the person that wrongfully locked someone away- so if they ignore it, the can live with their decision more.

Research-based teaching is beginning to challenge the status quo. The EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit helpfully shows the impact different interventions have. Setting and streaming has a negative impact upon pupils (by four months). Nevertheless, how many schools have faced this brutal fact.

On a school level, are there key areas that need to be dealt with but we are avoiding them. Are we piling on excuse after excuse in our subconscious so that now we are adamant that there is no problem at all?

Jim Collins in Good to Great helpfully advises us to brutally confront the facts in order to make the best decisions for our schools.

He says,

“There is nothing wrong with pursuing a vision for greatness. After all the good-to-great companies also set out to create greatness. But, unlike the comparison companies, the good-to-great comapnies continually refined the path to greatness with brutal facts of reality.”

The one thing we are most terrified to do, is the one the thing we must do- leave no rock unturned. Collins quotes Fred Purdue, who said, “When you turn over rocks and look at all the squiggly things underneath, you can either put the rock down, or you can say, ‘My job is to turn over rocks and look at squiggly things,’ even if what you see can scare the hell out of you”

But how do we make it culturally acceptable where the facts aren’t ignored?

  1. Lead with questions not answers – As leaders we need to continually be asking questions. The questions which people avoid answering often. Collins recommends regular informal meetings with questions such as, ‘So what’s on your mind?’, ‘Can you tell me about that?’ and ‘Can you help me understand?’
  2. Engage in dialogue and debate, not coercion- Heated, candid debates are okay. We often want to speed through the decision making process and end up with a fractured team. We need to have candid debates to leave which leave no stone unturned. However, there must be no manipulation during these meetings.
  3. Conduct autopsies, without blame- Because people fear failure, it is very easy to find scapegoats and hide our own failures. Ed Catmull in Creativity Inc shared a story of when someone accidentally pressed the delete button on a project that they were working on. Most of the the work was lost but there was no witch hunt to find the culprit. Instead, everyone worked to find a solution.
  4. Build red-flag mechanisms- People need to have the licence to challenge. The right climate needs to be created for this to happen. Jim Collins in his lecture actually gave his students a red flag. In Japan’s factories, any worker could raise the alarm if there was a problem on the conveyor belt. Leaders need to be receptive to red-flags so that they keep on been raised.


Collins shares the story of Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was an American Prisoner of War in Vietnam. Jim was able to retain the faith that he will prevail in the end, regardless of any difficulties AND AT THE SAME TIME confront the most brutal facts of his current reality, whatever they might be. Jim explained that the first people to die were the optimists because they would believe that they would be out by Christmas, but Christmas came and went and they became depressed and gave up hope.

Leaders, what are the brutal and uncomfortable facts that you need to face this year? The one’s that you’ve been avoiding. The one’s that everyone has been trying to tell you but you’ve been ignoring them