Black box thinking and feedback loops
I read a very interesting book called Black Box Thinking. It essentially delves into the concept of feedback loops and how they can help individuals and organisations in a variety of different situations.
That aspect of the book was interesting, but the part that really stirred my imagination was around organisations/industries where Block Box Thinking was more evident and how negatively these industries were being affected by not having adequate feedback loops in place.
The industry that was held as a paragon of Black Box Thinking was the airline industry, and the way the black box is used, which is also where the book gets its name from. When something goes wrong the black box is consulted and there is a lot of transparency in place to make sure that even when people admit to mistakes they realise it’s for the greater good and so there is no comeback.
This has meant that the airline industry is one of the safest in the world especially considering how high risk it is.
Another industry closer to me where there is a lot of continuous feedback is agile software delivery. At the end of each sprint, we have a concept called a Retrospective, where we review what has gone well and what could be done better.
This leads to the team working more and more effectively as the sprints go on and delivering more value to the business.
However, I think it could be taken a step further, as there is still a certain amount of politics involved. People don’t always say exactly what they want, as they don’t want to hurt the other persons feelings or look to be a troublemaker. In this situation, I think anonymising the retrospective could help to raise deeper more challenging issues as there will be less fear of reprisal.
This concept of politics and reprisals is one of the biggest challenges with trying to apply black box thinking to industries that are in dire need of feedback mechanisms and more transparency in general.
If there is no clear feedback between a decision and its outcome then a lot of negative things happen – people can’t learn from their mistakes and there is no scope for improvement.
An example would be the medical industry, where mistakes are often covered up and a level of defensiveness happens when there is an error in surgery. If there was more transparency some of the deep underlying issues could be addressed and a lot of lives that are unnecessarily being lost could be saved.
So far I have given examples of industries where feedback loops have been useful or could be useful – but now I’ll talk about personal feedback loops and how they can help.
Weight loss is one of my favourite subjects and an area where a clear feedback loop can be placed. Weighing yourself regularly on a scale is a good example, as it can give you constant feedback on how your lifestyle choices are negatively or positively affecting your health with a discrete specific measurement.
This can be a powerful motivator to get you to make better choices. The quantified self also feeds into this if there were other health markers that we could easily measure then that would also help motivate us to be healthier.
One example could be blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity – if we eat a lot of sugary food then our insulin sensitivity goes down but eating healthier and eating less sugary food could be a good way of combating that.
This would be even more specific than weighing yourself as that can be misleading, as sometimes you could be putting muscle on. With all these things you know that eating a bar of chocolate could be bad for you but if you could be more concrete in the way you quantify this then that spurs you on to make better decisions.
It is also possible to overdo it with feedback loops or to look at the wrong information which leads you down the wrong path for a particular thing.
In business: It could be looking at total revenue or hits instead of looking at conversions or profit. You could think you’re doing the right thing but in reality, you aren’t and it may be doing more harm than good.
Hopefully, I’ve given some compelling arguments into trying to incorporate feedback loops more into your business and daily life. They can be a powerful way to motivate and to focus your thoughts. Part of the reason why they work is that you move from being in a qualitative mindset to a more quantitative mindset, which helps you move past your biases and bad habits.