Matthew Syed: ‘Analysing mistakes is key to success’

Mathew Syed Journalist English Table Tennis International

Award-winning Times columnist and former British table-tennis Olympian Matthew Syed believes that the path of failure leads to the palace of success. Here he explains why…

The title of Matthew Syed’s second book – Black Box Thinking – speaks for itself, referring as it does to in-plane recording devices which offer reams of critical data to help investigators get to the bottom of aviation accidents and prevent the same thing from happening again. The title couldn’t be more apposite for the book’s message: organisations should put more error interrogation and diagnosis into their operations in order to grow and be successful.

For Syed, the aviation industry’s culture of open, non-judgemental failure engagement is one which businesses of all natures and sizes could reap vast benefits from emulating. “When pilots experience a near-miss with another aircraft, or have been flying at the wrong altitude, they file a report,” he writes.

“Providing that it is submitted within 10 days, they enjoy immunity. Many planes are also fitted with data systems that automatically send [de-identified] reports when parameters have been exceeded…” In aviation, he adds, “failure is data-rich”.

This attitude, he says, is institutionalised. “Openness and learning rather than blaming is the instinctive response – and system safety has been the greatest beneficiary,” Syed tells Director, adding that the accident rate per million take-offs in 2014 fell to a historic low of 0.23.

“Contrast that with the healthcare scene, in which mistakes are very threatening to surgeons who have big egos, and the culture is very litigious – preventable medical error is now the third-biggest killer in western countries.”

One of the major problems with business’s approach to failure, believes Syed, concerns our collective attitude. “We love to think of ourselves as smart people, so we find mistakes, failure and sub-optimal outcomes challenging to our egos,” he says.

“But the reality is, when we’re involved in complex areas of human endeavour – and business is very complex – our ideas and actions not being perfect is an inevitability. If we’re threatened by our mistakes, and become prickly when people mention them, we don’t learn from them. We need to eradicate the idea that smart people don’t make mistakes.”

Lessons from sport

Syed’s philosophy encompasses not just big, obvious errors, but also the sum total of the minuscule ones. And the former table-tennis champion believes that the world of sport offers abundant examples of this. “Team Sky have a process called ‘aggregation of marginal gains’,” he says.

“They break down the problems of cycling into their component parts – nutrition, physiology, sleep and so on – then optimise every one. The accumulation of all these things leads to a huge end result. That’s why they’ve dominated cycling for the last few years.” Engineering problems, he adds, “are more straightforward than social problems, but it’s a good analogy [for how we should approach error]”.

So who in the business realm has nailed ‘Black Box Thinking’? Syed notes that Henry Ford learnt vital nuances about consumer needs with two failed automobile ventures before changing the world with the Ford Motor Company, and points out that “James Dyson made 5,127 mistakes when creating the dual cyclone vacuum cleaner”. But it’s a more recently formed business giant that has taken error analysis into an altogether more adventurous realm.

Wishing to select a new shade of blue for its homepage toolbar, Google decided to organise all users of its web-based email service into 40 groups which would be presented with different shades of blue and tracked, determining which hue enticed the most clicks. Emulating the principle of clinical trials for new pharmaceutical products, the company was effectively generating a wealth of deliberate mistakes in order to learn from them. The resulting choice of colour, according to Google’s then UK boss Dan Cobley, generated $200m (£129m) worth of extra annual revenue.”

So what can smaller companies do to implement Syed’s philosophy? First, implement what he calls a “precision guided model” when it comes to problem-spotting. “The ballistic model is, ‘Calculate the gravity, take aim and hit the bullseye’,” he says, “whereas the precision-guided approach involves ongoing tweaks and nudges once the bullet’s in the air.”

Deference to the blunders of senior staff is another issue highlighted in Black Box Thinking, so flatter hierarchical structures may help. If you want to be truly radical, consider removal of accountability for slip-ups and certainly eradicate rebukes for, and punitive responses to, mistakes.

“You can build motivation by breaking down the idea that we can all be perfect on the one hand, and by building up the idea that we can get better with good feedback and practice on the other,” says Syed.

But Syed believes a handful of measures aren’t enough: the instillation of a company-wide, failure-embracing culture is necessary to create “a process of dynamic change and adaptation which is similar to the way biological evolution works”, as he puts it. “[The principle] runs through human history – success happens through a willingness to engage with, and change as a result of, our failings. Get that right and everything else falls into place.”

Black Box Thinking is published on 10 September (£20, Hodder & Stoughton)

Matthew Syed CV

1970 Born to a Pakistani father and Welsh mother in Reading

1992 Represents Great Britain at table tennis at the Barcelona Olympics. The country’s number one player for almost a decade, he would become Commonwealth champion three times and also compete at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

1995 Graduates from Oxford University with a first-class degree in philosophy, politics and economics

2002 Co-founds charity TTK Greenhouse (, which “empowers youngsters through sport”.

2011 Publishes his first book, Bounce: The myth of talent and the power of practice, a study of how to translate the principles of sporting success for other life avenues


About author

Nick Scott

Nick Scott

A former editor-in-chief of The Rake and deputy editor of the Australian edition of GQ, Nick has had features published in titles including Esquire, The Guardian, Observer Sport Monthly and Rolling Stone Australia and is a contributing editor to Director magazine. He has interviewed celebrities including Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig and Elle Macpherson, as well as business people including Sir Richard Branson, Charles Middleton and Nick Giles and Michael Hayman MBE.

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