Black Box Thinking
“Every aircraft is equipped with two, almost indestructible black boxes… If there is an accident, the boxes are opened, the data is analysed, and the reason for the accident excavated. This ensures that procedures can be changed so that the same error never happens again” (p. 9).
As such, aviation is characterised by a progressive attitude to failure that drives forward key improvements in practice and systems. For Syed, this is a mindset that we all need to incorporate into our everyday lives if we are to unleash our potential and move forward. His challenge to us is clear:
“…We need to redefine our relationship with failure, as individuals, as organisations, and as societies. This is the most important step on the road to a high-performance revolution… Only by redefining failure will we unleash progress, creativity and resilience” (p. 14).
I will now apply some Black Box Thinking to a real-life scenario from my own practice.
The context: Head Teachers’ conference
Or was it?
The importance of feedback
The feedback (as regards the session on coaching) from the 71 forms returned was as follows:
So: What went wrong?
This is where Black Box Thinking comes in.
Black Box Thinking
- The case studies from the two schools were consistently valued.
- Some participants (34%) found the session, or elements of it, helpful. It’s important not to lose sight of this, and I'm pleased those people were catered for.
How did the session fall short?
- It was too long (two hours was too much for a session delivered in this way at this time).
- For this audience, it needed to be more practical, and less theory/research-evidence focused, instead exploring how to use coaching in schools (as per the title!).
- The participants needed longer talk opportunities (we did include several of these, which helped the session, but they were only five minutes each in duration and didn’t allow for collective feedback/discussion afterwards).
- The material wasn’t pitched correctly for the majority of the audience. Many were further along the line in their knowledge and development as regards coaching, so they saw it as nothing new to them.
- The session wasn’t interactive enough. I didn't engage with the audience or take feedback/questions.
- The delivery was rather dry & factual, and too focused on reading from a script/PowerPoint slides.
- While I have every confidence in the actual material, some of it was perhaps not the right selection for this audience, in this forum, on a Friday afternoon.
All of which is fair enough, and all are messages that I accept.
The question is: What to do with that feedback?
Learning to inform future practice
- More acknowledgement of, respect for, and recognition of the audience’s starting point with respect to the material, with the pitch and learning methods adjusted accordingly (for example, there were parts of this session where it would’ve been better to facilitate a collaborative discussion and elicit experiences from the participants, rather than simply delivering input with slides).
- Less detail/facts, more stories/heart to bring the material to life.
- Less input, more interaction between and with the audience.
- More of a focus on practical implementation.
Interestingly, when I look back at those learning points, none of them is particularly revelatory to me. Indeed, I’ve been providing training since 2003, and those are all lessons that I learned relatively early on in my career (I think it’s fair to say I wouldn’t be developing a successful career as a trainer without having learned them!).
So what went wrong on this occasion?
Maybe it was as simple as failing to apply existing learning in a new context. Maybe I allowed my own interest in the material to interfere with a proper consideration of the needs of the participants. Maybe I allowed assumptions about what is usually expected from the context (a conference talk) to override my principles about what constitutes effective learning. Maybe my perception of the event as a potentially high-stakes occasion led me to prepare defensively in ways that don’t come naturally to me (for example, I never usually have a written script when training, so it was an interesting decision for me to adopt that particular strategy on this occasion).
I think possibly all of those reasons could have played a part to some extent, and that is some very useful learning to take forward into future endeavours.
- Who is the audience? What are their needs?
- Where are the participants on their learning journey with respect to this material?
- What lessons have I learned previously that I can apply in this context?
- Am I allowing my own interests to interfere with selecting appropriate material for the participants?
- How can I bring the material to life with real-life examples?
- How can I get some heart into the material?
- To what extent am I staying true to my own principles and experience about what constitutes effective learning?
- How can I make sure the session is engaging?
While I cannot guarantee that the same error will never happen again, the process has – I hope – certainly made it less likely. It’s been a very helpful reminder to not take my eye off the needs of the participants, and to make sure I consciously apply previously-learned lessons in new contexts. It’s also further illustrated the value of Black Box Thinking, an open and progressive attitude to failure that enables us to learn and grow from adverse experiences; that is, provided we:
- Are willing to seek feedback that will enable us to do so.
- Are given honest feedback that will enable us to do so.
- Are willing to reflect on the feedback without defensiveness, and use it to drive our future development.
If those ingredients are present, then it is an invaluable mechanism for helping us all to grow and develop as people and professionals, whether the experience in focus is one of success or failure.
Next challenge, please.
- What opportunities will you have in the coming days or weeks to seek feedback about an aspect of your practice?
- What can you learn from an experience that has gone less well recently?
- How will that learning shape your future practice?
- Who may benefit from that learning being applied?