Black Box Thinking

June 1, 2016

The flight data recorder, often referred to as the “black box,” can generally be defined as a sealed recording instrument installed in every aircraft that makes a continuous record of flight altitude, airspeed, heading, accelerations, voices and noises heard in the cockpit.  These units are installed in fireproof housings and are mounted in the tails of aircraft and retrieved upon a crash to study the data recorded.

In his book entitled Black Box Thinking,” Matthew Syed shared how at various times we all fail in sports, our jobs and in life.  The book explores why most people never learn from their mistakes.  Throughout the book he compares how aviation safety records continue to improve due to openness and a formal review process.  The author also cites many examples of how the same openness that drives aviation success records is not embraced in other industries, especially the health care industry.  The purpose of the book was stated to be to offer a new approach to redefine our relationship with failure as individuals, organizations and societies.  It was stated that in 1912, eight out of every fourteen U.S. Army pilots died in crashes and the early fatality rates in flight training schools were close to twenty five percent.  Today safety records are very different and much improved!

According to the author, most individuals and organizations are stuck in a relationship with failure that impedes progress, halts innovation and damages careers and personal lives.

Often I share with people the wisdom of Sir Francis Bacon in the 17th century.  He too understood the concept of “black box thinking.”  In the book entitled “The Soft Edge”, author Rich Karlgaard explains Bacon’s wisdom:


Step 1:           Observe and describe the phenomena.

Step 2:           Sort what you see into categories according to characteristics.

Step 3:           Measure correlations and probabilities between the attributes of things in each category and the outcomes of interest.

Step 4:           Study a single event, a single organism or a single company at deep depth to learn what causes things to happen and why.

Step 5:           With the understanding of causality, one can then study the different situations in which things must be done differently in order to achieve the desired result.

Step 6:           Seek to find anomalies-phenomena that the theory cannot explain.  Resolving these anomalies is the way that theories improve.

I have also read that Robert Greenleaf’s (Servant Leadership Pioneer) father shared a similar approach to problem solving.  Regardless of the challenge, these old concepts work if we use them.  I will confess that I am far from being considered wise and probably need to use these tools more than many people.

For some thought provoking stimulation and lots of interesting stories you might just want to obtain a copy of “Black Box Thinking” on your journey to wisdom and understanding!


Written by KING AEROSPACE Founder, Jerry Allan King-Echevarria.