Business Today

Learning from Mistakes

The author deftly explains that in acknowledging and accepting failure lie the secret to success.
By Abhay Jaiswal | Print Edition: December 4, 2016
Learning from Mistakes
Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance By Matthew Syed PAGES: 352 PRICE: Rs 399 Hachette India

Have you ever wondered why people seem to take such extreme positions in Facebook discussions on everything from politics to sports to films? And then do you wonder why these same people never accept mistakes or publicly reconsider their positions even when there emerges clear evidence to the contrary?

Matthew Syed's extremely well-researched book is about the indispensable role of failure in the advancement of human civilisation. Reading it will help you understand why people have such a hard time publicly accepting that they were wrong. It's because of a phenomenon that Syed calls "cognitive dissonance" - the inability to recognise and accept failure - and he presents a compelling case to demonstrate that it afflicts us in just about all walks of life.

He starts off with an examination of the healthcare industry and takes a deep look at how failure arising from negligence is often passed off as 'complication' hidden in technical jargon. He then goes on to study how failure in the form of wrongful convictions is dealt with in the criminal justice system. In both areas, the parallels are striking and the evidence is overwhelming. Mistakes get swept under the carpet instead of being recognised openly and subjected to analysis to find solutions for underlying problems. Syed finds that in both industries, the reputational harm that practitioners face and the stigma society attaches to failures create strong incentives to hide mistakes. This, in turn, creates an abysmal record of safety and fairness in both these industries leading to a rapid erosion of faith by the general public in them.

Syed looks at some notable exceptions where attitude towards accepting failure and learning from it have been noticeably different, leading to an incredible overall safety record in the case of aviation, producing mavericks with amazing skill like David Beckham in sports, a blistering track record of innovation like James Dyson, and an entire sport that competes in micro-seconds as a way of life like Formula 1 racing.

Syed explores deeply into the way of life at each of these exceptions to glean out the secrets of their superior performance and concludes that dealing with failure in a scientific manner and treating it as the greatest learning opportunity lies at the very heart of their success. He describes how the tools and techniques used by them can be adapted by each of us.

The scholarly intellect and instincts of Syed as a journalist - he writes for The Times - don't go to waste as he spins a narrative that is gripping in parts and supported tightly by extensive research throughout the book, making it a compelling read for anyone in a position of leadership who wants to improve the performance of their organisation.

The reviewer is Co-founder & CEO of Nilgai Foods

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