Pt. 1: The Learning Imperative – Lizards and Black Boxes

By Eicorn’s Management Consultant Daniel Borg

Did you know that the green anoles lizards have gone through a rapid evolutionary sprint over the past 15 years and developed sticky feet so that they can live higher up in the trees? The reason: their former ground habitat got invaded by other lizards that ate their children. [Source]

Imagine yourself in the same situation as the green anoles – a competitor that eats your offspring comes and invades your territory. Are you prepared for this situation? Do you have the tools, the know-how and capabilities to evolve and transform into something superior to defend your home? Or are you able to migrate to a new environment and carve out a defendable position there?

This threat of disruption is real. The question is not “if”, but “when” it will happen to you. Therefore, developing innovative and entrepreneurial capabilities have become essential to thrive in the new economic landscape. Acquiring the ability to evolve, like the green lizards, becomes imperative to remain competitive in almost every industry and market. But how do you evolve effectively? Let’s turn to the aviation industry for an illustrative example.

The aviation industry has long understood the simple reality that these green reptiles faced 15 years ago – that if they did not learn from failure, adapt and improve, it would come at an unacceptable cost: the loss of lives, and potentially, their entire existence. The black box that is now a core component in every aircraft was invented as a remedy, because it had the potential to provide the desperately needed insights to learn from failures. The insights that this small box has provided over the years are a major contributor to the industries compounded learning effect, which over time has made flying one of the safest ways to travel.

Captain Sullenberger, the pilot who emergency landed an airplane on the Hudson River after clashing with a flock of birds, beautifully summaries this amazing evolution in aviation safety in an interview:

“Everything we know in aviation, every rule in the rule book, every procedure we have, we know because someone somewhere died… We have purchased at great cost, lessons literally bought with blood that we have to preserve as institutional knowledge and pass on to succeeding generations. We cannot have the moral failure forgetting these lessons and have to relearn them.” [Source]

Black box thinking is an expression popularised by Matthew Syed in his book with the same name, and he uses the black box analogy to explain how the same concept that has made aviation successful can be applied to learning from failure in business and government. He defines it as:

“Black Box Thinking is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them.” [Source]

In a world that is constantly being fed the mantra of “fail forward” and “fail fast”, the introduction of a practical conceptualisation of learning from failure, such as “black box thinking”, is timely. In my work as an innovation consultant, I too often see companies pursue failure as if it was the answer to their lack of growth. What this movement has forgotten is how to effectively learn from the failure.

Failure could be considered the springboard to progress, but only if it leads to insights that can be translated into change and improvements.

So, by now you may wonder how you can build your company’s black box to kick-start and transform your organisation into a constantly evolving learning machine? The purpose of the next two articles in this three-piece series is to answer that question. But before we dive into the design, we must understand why it is so hard to learn from failure and what we can do to make it easier. This is the topic of the next article that will be released within short.

2018-04-30T09:23:27+00:00 April 5th, 2018|