Black Box Thinking

I loved Bounce so have been anticipating this with some excitement. Matthew Syed undertakes all the research so we can just sit back and learn it all by reading his books.

Bounce took the idea that just about anyone can be good at pretty much anything, it just takes practice. My take on Black Box Thinking puts out the idea that if more of us learnt from mistakes, the world would be a safer, better place.

Having been to the authors promotional event at the local Waterstones, I was warned about the heart-breaking opening story about Elaine Bromiley, a healthy lady dying on the operating table during a routine operation.

The author asks who in the audience was interested in sports, education or teaching? Whilst I have an interest in all three, my category – business – wasn’t mentioned. Being a fan-girl, I just turned up and bought the book on the day. There are always a few avid readers who go to these things armed with questions. I’m not one of those.

This is how I learnt what this book was about and it is indeed entirely relevant to my world. 

A good summary of Black Box Thinking is that whereas in the aviation industry, they immediately look for evidence as to why the accident happened and how they can do better next time, saving untold lives, the medical profession, in the main fails to learn from it's mistakes.

In an American study, a million people are said to be injured by hospital errors. 120,000 each year. A later 2013 study puts figure at 400,000. This is the equivalent of a 9/11 catastrophe happening every 2 months.

We wouldn’t tolerate this in any other area of preventable harm.

In the UK, 34,000 are killed due to human error.

In aviation, independent investigators immediately find out what went wrong, how to fix it and then share that openly with the world. Every pilot has access to the data. Syed says soon we won't need black box as all the info will have been already transmitted to a central database while the accident is happening. 

Learn from the mistakes of others. You can't live long enough to make them all yourself.

Sullenberger, who landed the plane in the Hudson River (while I was living in just up the road in New York, incidentally) credited all the lessons learnt from aviation deaths to his safe landing. 

The Toyota Production System (TPS) was put in place so if anyone on the car production line had a problem, they pull a cord which halts production. The error is assessed, lessons learnt and the system adapted. Try putting that into health service where mistakes are frowned upon & people are too scared to report their seniors, which is why the preventable death in the opening paragraph occurred.

30-60000 deaths in USA are due to central line infections (catheter placement) 

A healthcare organisation in America, Virginia Mason tried to put into place Patient Safety Alerts in 2002 but no one would report the errors. After the next death,  their boss issued a public, heartfelt apology. Complaints started coming in and it’s now one of the safest hospitals in the world and they saved 75% in insurance premiums too.

Pronovost (who wrote Safe Patients, Smart Hospitals) instituted 5 point check list and saved 1500 lives. Plus c $100m over 18 months in Michigan.

To really bring it home, I learn it took 264 years to put a preventative measure for scurvy in place.

So that others may learn, and even more may live - Martin Bromiley, husband of Elaine and campaigner.

More BlackBoxThinking business learnings here. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts to share, please contact me via @RickieWrites


Book: Dot Complicated by Randi Zuckerberg

How to Make it Through Life Online in One PieceThe surname reveals that Randi did indeed work with her brother during the start-up stages of Facebook. It's not my favourite social platform so I'm surprised to find myself riveted during the first few chapters that chart it's beginnings.

 "We're going to connect everybody"

Randi talks about the 'incredible belief' that her brother Mark and the team he'd assembled had even then and how they would 'live and breath' the mission. The fast track her career took by working at a tiny start-up as opposed to the years it would have taken in the corporate world was not lost on Randi. The majority of the book is about how living in the digital age affects our family, social lives, relationships, bringing up children as well as business. You may know children that touch the TV screen waiting for something to happen, so familiar they are with touch screen technology. Baring in mind the information is from two American surveys in 2012, here are some of the amazing facts from the book:

  • 25% of women would give up sex for a year to keep their tablet.
  • 15% of all respondents would give up their cars to keep their tablets.
  • 70% would give up alcohol for a week rather than part with their phone.
  • Nearly 15% said they'd give up sex entirely than go a weekend withouth their iPhones.

We learn in the next decade another three billion people will go mobile, mainly on their phone. The percentage of people who have all their online time on mobiles goes up every time I hear about another study on the matter. Have you optimised your website so they read just as well on the small screen?

I've been paperless for some years, except I still occasionally have to endure paper receipts, which I promptly photograph and upload onto my expense system, and then discard! It won't be long before we no longer see boxes of receipts or bank statements. We are already monitoring our health via apps and paying bills on our phone.

'The great thing is we're always connected. The bad thing is we're always connected.'  

'A notification is like getting a hit.' I can indentify with that. I think of a blue or red flashing light on my phone as an opportunity or a learning. It's positive either way.  Learn more about Dot Complicated here.

Any thoughts or observations about living online? Do comment below, it will be great to hear from you!


More 4-Hour Workweek - Are You Productive or Active?

4-hour-work-week-book In this post looking at the 4-hour workweek theory, we look at the many tips for being productive.

One of my often used words is ‘focus’ and Ferriss is big on making every minute count and not creating tasks for yourself.

If [due to a heart attack] you could only work 2 hours per day, what would you do?

If you had to [with a gun to your head] stop doing 4/5 things, what would they be? Emails, phone calls, advertising, paperwork or my personal favourite, meetings. You can add Facebook to that although I eliminated that almost immediately after I started on it.

Do not multi-task is a hard instruction to stomach for the serial multi tasker but I do get it. Eat first, the do internet research – both become more effective. Similarly, only aim for one or two critical tasks per day and do them completely in one sitting, from start to finish, without moving on to anything else

I love the tips given to offer solutions rather than asking questions:

“Can I make a suggestion?”

“I propose…”

“I’d like to propose…”

“I suggest that..What do you think?”

“Let’s try….and then something else if that doesn’t work.”

These are probably phrases you use any way so it’s a matter of trying them at crucial moments when you want to take control of a situation.

Cut down on reading (ironic as I’m sitting here reading his book.

No newspapers scan headlines as he goes past newsstand. I’m with that one – I feel if I need to know something someone will tell me on Twitter. I do actually like reading and consuming information so most Sundays I will buy the newspaper (which takes me a week to read)

Only read how to books when it’s autobiographical. From now on that’s how I’m going to write my how to articles like that now – ‘how I did it.’

Elimination also means No news – I’ve subscribed to this for most of my working life but if you don’t – he says to go cold turkey for five days

Live on need to know basis – my mind is cluttered enough without filling it with info I have no need for.

Practice the art of non-finishing – a new one on me. I have picked up a few books that I’ve not bonded with, some I have finished and very few have I given up on and that’s mainly if the book goes into a subject matter I’m not comfortable with.

Batching. Doing jobs in batches i.e. emails, paying bills, laundry, shopping,

Virtual Assistants. Have multiple and try to use those organisations that have more than one person so you’re not stuck if they are not available. Give precise instructions (what is it for) and short deadlines. Make sure they can do phone calls (even if you think they are not necessary right now)

Niche market. Creating a demand is hard. Filling in demand is easier. Don’t create a product then find someone to sell it too. Find a market – define our customers, then find or develop a product for them.

So this is another way of saying my main customer theory – ask the customer what they want and give it to them.

Mr F suggests one way to find a niche is to look at magazines with audience of at least 15000 and advertising for under say £3000 and brainstorm what you could sell that audience.

An expert, in the context of selling to a customer, just means knowing more than the customer.

Or you can be perceived to be an expert (and of course become one overtime (4 weeks)

These days, having deliberately slimmed down to become a solopreneur, I want people to know it’s just me. However, when building a company, I think it’s good advice to have multiple email addresses (that are all forwarded to yours) and to have someone answer the phones (I had Miss Moneypenny who picked up the calls when we couldn’t)

Instead of asking permission, seek forgiveness.

Although irrelevant to me, his tips on (gradually) convincing your boss to let you know work from home are brilliant!

A brief version of a brilliant story; fisherman who fishes enough to sell & support family and give to friends then spends his days with his family, doing whatever he wants. Mr Harvard MBA sees this and gives him all the ideas to expand; fish more, buy boats, have employees, move to LA, possibly then to NY to run the now very large company. Some 20-25 years later he could sell up for millions. ‘Then what?’ the fisherman asks. ‘Then you can spend all your days with your family, doing whatever you want…..

And guess what, he’s advocates my beloved re-occurring mini retirement, something I have already done starting with a year out working a few hours per day including 6 months in New York for writing school. Then go and be somewhere else for 6-12 months then move on – something I very much want to do and my preference for it is in Vancouver.

Originally published July 2012

The 4-Hour Workweek - Timothy Ferris

4-hour-work-week-book Despite knowing about this book when it first came out, I thought I would dislike it and never got round to picking it up. It was lent to me and now that I’ve read it, not only did I enjoy it, in context, I realise I actually am doing or have done in the last four years what Mr F prescribes us to and I agree with it! Well I never.

Rather than having millions in the bank, the Four Hour Work Week is about being creative by earning more per hour so we can do the things we want to do with the rest of our time. With that premise, you don’t necessarily have to thoroughly immensely enjoy your working hours but you like what they bring you – more time.

I however, would prefer to mostly enjoy all my hours (to be minimum 7 on the happy scale but more often 9/10) but I do understand the 4 hour work week.

I should mention that researching Mr Ferris for a client in 2008 is how I joined Twitter in the first place. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know one of the policies he has is to be ‘unreachable’ and Twitter was the only contact I could find (He didn’t get back to me). Whilst I want to be the opposite of this, I see his reasons; he goes invisible and then people have to deal with the problems rather than asking him. By people, I mean those that he outsources to; he doesn’t have employees but rather Virtual Assistants and a huge amount of outsourcing.

Anyway, I’ve already had a massive change in my life and gone from 18 hours to 6 hour working days four years ago. I found, to my cost, I was not working for myself; I was working for the people I employed. Once I decided to give up company status, staff, offices and all the overheads that go with – only then am I working for myself.

I class as ‘work’ as those hours I get paid for and the rest of the hours I write or research the many new ideas that keep popping into my head, mostly uninvited. I don’t have to do any of this but I enjoy it.

Furthermore, these are some great tips that serve as a refresher for me:

  1. Emphasise strengths rather than fixing weaknesses (for me, the secret here is to delegate/outsource work that I’m not so good at)
  2. Most business people have to do everything; the book says outsource what you’re not good at (see point 1)
  3. It’s not about retiring, which is great as I plan never to retire but carry on doing as much as my health allows. Why give up something you love? Anyway. Mr F advocates mini retirements and taking time out. A little bit like my year out including 6 months in New York going to writing school (and now I write every day and have just finished writing my first book).
  4. Fear. Something that I think is imagined anyway but this book talks about understanding and imagining the very, worse that can happen if you take the plunge away from an unhappy but moneyed life; penniless, wearing rags, living on bread and water. The point being that even if this very worst case scenario were to happen, you are still alive. And really, how likely is this?
  5. What would you do if you lost your job today and had no choice but to change?

Life’s too short to be small – Ben Disraeli

The book is very much written towards people who are in the corporate world (Underjoyed, overworked) and I wonder perhaps they are the most unlikely to pick up this book?


As an employee, your goal is make yourself indispensable enough to convince them to let you work from home. That way, you can work more efficiently getting your tasks done more quickly and spend the rest of your hours doing fun things.

As an entrepreneur (for want of better word) simply decrease work = increase revenue and this is achieve mainly through automation his is complete common sense of course (I’ve already done it to some degree) but the whole not ‘checking’ emails thing is nonsensical to me. One, I don’t check emails, I read and delete/respond – that’s how I do business efficiently and two, I don’t see the sense (again) in keeping my clients (i.e. those that pay my wages) waiting. My competitor will respond faster.

Pareto’s 80/20 rule

Applied to many contexts, I think the best one is working out where your profits come from. Ferris looks at it thus:

1. Which 20& of sources are causing 80% of my problems and unhappiness

2. Which 20% of sources are resulting in 80% of my desired outcomes and happiness

I did this a few years ago, working out most of my happiness came from writing so I should get on with it. Most of my problems came from having a company, employing (trying) staff, increasing business and having huge office overheads. I know write for up to half of each day and make most of my money from the other half plus some evenings and weekends. The difference is more of the work is fun and I only do about a third of actual work compared to where I was four years ago.

Similarly, Ferris realised that 95% of his business came from his top two customers – so why keep contacting the rest? Indeed.

He did find a few more customers that replicated his top two to top up the revenue, ending up with 8 rather than the 120 he had before. His income doubled in four weeks and his hours dropped from 80 to 15. He then applied the same principles to advertising costs and affiliates. It’s not just the money spent but the time wasted on administrating it all. It makes sense to me but as I say, I’ve been through it.

First published July 2012

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