Black Box Thinking

blackboxYes, I’m trying to get my writing mojo back. People say the way to start writing is to start writing. People are profound sometimes! So back to reviewing a few of the books I’ve been reading. This book was recommended to me by a friend who suggested it might be helpful to leaders in our network around the country.

Black Box Thinking: The surprising truth about success and why some people never learn from their mistakes by Matthew Syed identifies some important blind spots. People are always telling us that we should learn from our mistakes, fail forward, and change the way we go about things so that we keep on improving. The problem is that we so often repeat our mistakes, get stuck in ruts, and fear making changes.

This book takes its title from the little black boxes fitted to aeroplanes. I understand that planes are fitted with devices to record the electronics of the aircraft and to record the interactions of the pilots. These devices are stored in ‘indestructible’ black boxes that can be retrieved in the case of accidents. Apparently these black boxes are now orange, not because orange is the new black, but because orange boxes are easier to locate when rubble is scattered far and wide. What a great example of black box thinking!

Going back to 1912, plane crashes were considered normal and inevitable. Half of US army pilots died in air crashes, even during peacetime. Fast-forward to today and plane travel is one of the safest means of transport. There are very few deaths and the accident rate is about 1 in 2.5 million flights. There are many reasons for this tremendous improvement, but at its core there is a mindset in the aviation world that says, “We must learn from our mistakes.” The black box is a tangible expression of this attitude. When something goes badly wrong, it must then be examined with a fine tooth comb to make sure such mistakes don’t happen again. This is a life and death imperative.

This mindset is not seen everywhere else. People are reluctant to own up to their mistakes. We’d prefer to rationalise things, pass the blame, gloss over what has happened, and avoid scrutiny or accusation. Human pride gets in the way. Syed contrasts the slowness of the health profession to learn from mistakes with the progress of the aviation industry. When doctors make mistakes they get hammered by litigation, public shaming, deregistration, increased insurance costs, and the like. So who wants to admit fault? In both arenas, people’s lives depend on learning from mistakes and making changes to avoid things being repeated.

I depend greatly on the proficiency and safety of both the medical and aviation sectors. Both these areas matter to me. But there are other lessons I am interested in. As one who now leads are network of churches, or denomination, I am concerned about the systemic failure of churches to learn from their mistakes. The recent Royal Commission into institutional child abuse, has reveal some appalling accounts of denials, cover ups, and codes of silence. Black box thinking requires the truth to be revealed, serious questions to be asked, and future problems avoided.

We need to learn from our mistakes. Even more so, we need to repent of our blatant sin. The problem with sin is that it leads to shame and so we cover ourselves. We’ve been doing it since the beginning. God calls us to confess our sins, to be honest with one another, to take heed of our failures, and to spur each other on to love and good works.

But it’s not simply in the areas of heinous sin that we need to develop black box thinking—it’s in the day to day of our ministry. It seems that many churches are trapped in patterns of mindless repetition. Q. “Why do we do what we do?” A. “Because that’s what we’ve always done.”  And we wonder why people have stopped coming!

Whether it’s church, school, business, club, or whatever, we need to keep thinking about what’s not working, why it’s not working, what needs to change, and how we can change it. Review should me commonplace and regular. Action—reflection—reaction should be our normal pattern. Failures should be seen as opportunities to make changes for the better. Mistakes should be valued as triggers for improvement. You’ve probably heard the Michael Jordan stories of countless missed shots, errors of judgment, lost games—all viewed as opportunities to learn, grow, succeed, and become arguably the greatest basketball player in history.

Syed challenges the popular view that success is primarily based upon innate qualities such as talent and intelligence. He describes this as a Fixed Mindset. He argues that we need to develop a Growth Mindset, where success can be achieved though dedication and hard work. People are capable of achieving more if they are willing to learn and make changes and if they are willing to practice until perfect.

In my world of Christian ministry I want to make a plea for black box thinking. Let’s learn from our mistakes and failures. Let’s ask the difficult questions. Let’s normalise reviews and feedback. And this will require humility from everyone, and especially from pastors and leaders.

Allow me to illustrate with 7 suggestions for black box thinking for pastors:

  1. Pastors would benefit from professional supervision. Taking timeout to reflect and learn from our practice will improve our ministries. Find someone who can speak into your circumstances and help you to develop black box thinking.
  2. Pastors should seek feedback on their sermons from people they trust. I’ve heard depressing tales of ministers unwilling to provide support and feedback to their trainees because they won’t accept critique themselves.
  3. Pastors can build a culture of learning from mistakes by reviewing what they and the church do on a regular basis. Go with the natural rhythms. Monday is a good time to review the services on the weekend—what worked, what didn’t, what could be done better next time? Once a quarter would be a good time to make adjustments to our regular programs. Why not introduce a major annual review, such that every year things change and grow for the better?
  4. Pastors could organise to get together with peers from time to time to share successes and failures. Being open with one another builds a culture of humility. Iron sharpens iron. You can learn from one another’s mistakes and avoid falling in the same traps. Go to a conference or two where you can learn from others.
  5. Maintain the discipline of reading books that will keep building your competencies. Begin regularly with the Bible and ask God to deepen your love and understanding of him. Read a commentary to enrich your understanding of the Scriptures, something on leadership to challenge your practice, a book on culture to evaluate how well you understand your world, and so on. Ask others you trust what they have found useful.
  6. Become more thoughtful. Think about your thinking. Keep some notes and look back over them. Journal lessons you have learned. Set goals for change.
  7. Pray. Ask God to shine a light into your thinking, feelings, emotions, relationships, decisions, plans. Look into the ‘black box’ of God’s word and make the necessary changes.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)

Thinking, Fast and Slow

thinkingI could never have imagined myself reading a book by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, but I have, and to my profit. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow has helped me understand more about how I think, make decisions, communicate, and respond to the words and actions of others.

His basic idea is that we have two different modes of thinking and processing information. The first mode is automatic and impulsive. It’s our knee-jerk response that enables us to take short cuts and move on with ease. The second mode is more deliberate, focused, logical, and it’s necessary for making truly wise choices. Some of us tend to react instinctively, go with our guts, and sometimes miss things that are critical. As an ENFP (Myers-Briggs Type), I’m one of them. People need to spend most of their time in the first mode because we haven’t got the time or the stamina to carefully examine every decision we make. Some things just need to be automatic. However, we can become lazy thinkers, and take short cuts when we shouldn’t, and not slow down when we really should.

We are all prone to making snap choices—weighing up people and situations in an instant. We oversimplify, latching on to something we like and assuming that we will like everything. This can lead to major errors in judgment. Let’s say I’m considering someone for a job. I learn that they love fishing, camping and four-wheel driving. This leads me to gravitate towards them. We spend time chatting about our common interests, places we’ve been, experiences we’ve had. I like them. Hence, there is now a bias toward preferring this person regardless of what experience they might have had in the job, how competent or incompetent they are, whether they are a team player or prima donna, or any other critical criteria. This has been called the halo effect. We assume they will be good even though we know very little about them.

Similarly, I might know some details about a person, such as where they trained or who they’ve worked with previously. I associate what I know about them with an ideal that I’ve created. If I’ve had positive experiences with the people they know or with the training organisation they come from, then confirmation bias may lead me to make assumptions about them and not do due diligence to get more relevant information specifically about them. I wonder how many people employed on the ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ principle, have turned out so differently to what was expected. Taking short cuts might save time in the short term, but may lead to drawn out disasters in the longer term.

Kahneman discusses how we perceive statistics, memories, risks, choices, and more. He shows how our perspective shapes how we respond to things. For example, if a shopkeeper is told that there is a 1% chance that someone entering her shop will be a shoplifter, then she might not worry too much. But, if she was told that of the 1000 people who will come through her shop this week, 10 of them will be shoplifters, you can imagine she will be on high alert for who they might be. The statistics are identical but each statement offers a different perspective.

Context is also important for weighing decisions. If two people are both promised that by the end of the year they will each have a net worth of $100 million, then you’d expect them to be equally happy, wouldn’t you? If one of them was me, I’d be ecstatic. Who wouldn’t be happy with $100 million? If I told you that the other person was Mark Zuckerberg, whose current net worth sits at $75 billion, you can see how context changes everything!

These insights will help us to be more effective communicators. Pausing to consider how people might ‘see’ what we are saying, will move us to take the extra step to get our message across more clearly. So often we think if something has been said then it’s been heard. But is their perception the same as our intention? It pays to be clear and it pays to enquire as to whether we’ve been understood.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a book to get us thinking about our thinking. While much of what we do needs to be quick and automatic, there are some areas where we need to disengage cruise control and put our minds into manual. In my work as a church pastor over many years I can see times when I took the lazy option and endured the consequences of not thinking hard or long enough. Now, I watch others fall into similar errors of judgment. While we know there is always more than meets the eye and we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we get lazy, we’re attracted by the short cuts. I hope that I will grow in wisdom, be a better judge of people, make smarter decisions, and communicate for effectively, as I seek to think both fast and slow.





DecisiveI had considered reading and reviewing this book some time ago, but I couldn’t make up my mind whether to or not! Dad joke—well it is father’s day. Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work by Chip and Dan Heath offers helpful advice for improving our ability to make decisions. It describes how we can focus on what lies in front of us and ignore many of the background factors that may, in fact, be even more important to the choices. It takes us beyond trusting our gut, on the one hand, and careful analysis, on the other. It helps us to understand some of the hindrances that get in the way of good decision-making, so that we can overcome them and choose wisely.

Decisive identifies four ‘villains’ of decision-making:

Narrow framing
Confirmation bias
Short-term emotion

The nature of each villain leads to suggesting a process that will overcome its impact. It’s described as the WRAP process, and is generally sequential. The four steps to better decision-making are:

Widen your options—helps avoid narrow framing.

Reality-test your assumptions—helps get information you can trust.

Attain distance before deciding—helps overcome short-term emotion.

Prepare to be wrong—helps avoid being suckered by overconfidence.

1. Widen your options

Avoid a narrow frame
It’s not uncommon for people and organisations to only consider one option. This is the whether or not alternative. Most often this frame is to narrow. Good decisions may require us to look at multiple options. One way to do this is to consider the ‘opportunity cost’—what would we miss out on if we make this decision? Another way is to run the ‘vanishing options’ test—assuming that our current options have vanished forces us to consider new alternatives, that may be better than what’s in front of us.

This option involves considering more than one option simultaneously. It’s about getting our minds out of set grooves and generating multiple options. There’s an inefficiency about it because it means people or teams working in parallel and ideas being wasted, but it frequently leads to better outcomes. It assists with finding options that minimise harm and maximise opportunities.

Find someone who’s solved your problem
Whatever decisions we’re facing, it’s almost certain that someone has faced them before. There may be someone close to us who has handled the decision well, or there may already be recognised wisdom on the matter. We should look around for ideas and be willing to learn from others—their mistakes and successes.

2. Reality-test your assumptions

Consider the opposite
It’s very easy to seek out information that confirms our biases and not to notice things that don’t. The Heaths recommend sparking constructive disagreement to unearth alternatives and see our options more clearly. This can lead to unwelcome conflict, so people should be encouraged towards a common commitment to discovering the best option for the organisation. They highlight a couple of questions that show how this can be done:

What would have to be true for this option to be the right answer? (p99)

What if our least favorite option was actually the best one? What data might convince us of that? (p100)

It’s also important to force ourselves to consider the opposite of our desires. We can be our own worst enemies by our failure to recognise that there are options before us if only we’d take off our blinkers.

Zoom out, zoom in
The outside view concerns the averages—how do things normally turn out in situations like these. The inside view concerns our evaluation—our impressions and gut instincts. The reality is that we tend toward the inside view when the outside tens to be more accurate. Trusting the law of averages leads towards humility, yet it’s so easy to think we can beat the odds; that we’re better than that. This is not to say we should always play it safe, but we should recognise that it might be considerably harder if we choose to buck the trend. Zooming out and then zooming in gives us a more realistic perspective on our choices.

Ooching involves running small experiments to test our theories. It provides a way to discover reality rather than trying to predict it. Entrepreneurs tend to ooch naturally. Instead of trying to forecast the future, they go out and try things. This approach has particular implications for hiring staff. We tend to try and predict how people will perform in a job from interviews. The reality is that interviews often give us little more information than how someone performs in an interview. The Heaths recommend we ooch instead—take people for a test-drive to see how they perform in areas relevant to the job they’re seeking.

3. Attain distance before deciding

Overcome short-term emotion
There are always emotions involved in decision-making, but they don’t always lead us to the best decisions. A short-term emotion can lead us to decisions that are bad in the long term. To over come this Decisive recommends adopting the approach of Suzy Welch in her book 10/10/10. This involves asking how this decision will impact us in ten minutes, ten months, and ten years. Conducting a 10/10/10 analysis doesn’t presuppose that the long-term perspective is the right one. It simply ensures that short-term emotion isn’t the only voice at the table. (p163) We can also attain distance by looking at the situation from an outside observer’s perspective or by asking ‘What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?’

Honour your core priorities

Difficult decisions can indicate a conflict among our priorities. Recognising and sticking to our values, beliefs, goals, aspirations and priorities make it easier to resolve dilemmas. This will often necessitate letting go of lesser priorities. We don’t have time to do everything, so we might need to develop a ‘Not to do’ list as well as a ‘to do’ list.

4. Prepare to be wrong

Bookend the future
We are advised to consider what the future may hold, considering both best and worst case scenarios. We can consider the worst case by doing a ‘premortem’ and asking how likely is it and what would the consequences be? This stops us from focusing on a single, and most likely optimistic, guess about what the future might be like. We recognise the impact of uncertainty and avoid overconfidence. We should also consider the best possible outcome and  run a ‘preparade’. This gets us asking what we would need to be doing if our decision was a raving success. To prepare for what can’t be foreseen the authors recommend building in a ‘safety factor’. Anticipating problems will help us avoid them and cope with them, should they arise.

Set a tripwire
It’s so easy to live life on autopilot, doing the same things the same way we’ve always done them. For example, we always peel bananas from the top. But there is a YouTube video with millions of viewers that shows it’s easier to peel a banana from the bottom. Try it—I did and it’s right! We can drift along failing to see the opportunity or necessity of making new decisions. One solution is to create ‘tripwires’ that snap us awake and get us to reevaluate a decision or make a new one. They work like the low fuel warning light in a car— a signal that we need to do something. One of the most common tripwires is a deadline. Tripwires can also create a safe place for risk taking by capping the risk and quieting our minds until the wire is tripped.

And a few thoughts…

I’m looking forward to thinking more thoroughly through how I make my decisions. I can see a tendency in myself to view options as either/or than than one among many. It would help me to ask about my natural inclinations and bias as I look to decide what to do. This approach can also contribute to better outcomes in resolving conflict with others. There is often more than your way or my way—there are a multitude of ‘other’ ways.

I’ve had to make many decisions about staff roles and hiring people over the years, and the tendency has been to put a lot of store in interviews to gain information. I’ve recognised that interviews have only limited value. More significant are references and evidence of previous experience. Having read Decisive, I can also see the advantages of ooching. If we want someone to preach regularly, then give them a passage of the Bible or a topic and get them to do it. If we want them to counsel others, then create a role play and have them counsel. If we want them to manage our website, then get them to design a page or solve a problem. It might not be as efficient in the short-term, but it could save a lot of grief in the long-term.

Some time back I read Suzy Welch’s book 10/10/10 and found it helpful to look at the impact of decisions from a variety of reference points. However, I decided that the book didn’t go far enough. I recommended that it needed to be 10/10/10/10 and that we should consider the impact of our decisions well beyond ten years hence. What will be the significance of our choices in ten thousand years time? What are the eternal consequences of making these choices? This is what I need to consider to honour my core priorities.

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