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A Black Day to Be English

Published: Oct 08 , 2015
Author: Alan Smith


Saturday night was a very dark time for me and many of my English friends and colleagues. Whilst no one actually died, it feels like many of our dreams and hopes did.

If you enjoy sport and even if you don’t you will be able to imagine just how devastating it is for an Englishman that the National rugby team was knocked out of its home World Cup tournament, by their old nemesis Australia. The only host nation ever to have been knocked out of their own tournament at such an early stage, the loss came fast on the heels of the defeat by Wales the previous week, a game that frankly England really should have won.

The ramifications go way beyond the game and indeed sport itself. Literally billions of pounds have been predicted to have been wiped out. The stock market dip as companies not only lose revenue (pubs empty, TV channels switched off, advertising budgets wasted) but also its pep, its high jinks, its feel good factor, mean that we may all feel the pain much like the English front 5.

Are there any positives to come out of the situation at all?

Matthew Syed in his brilliant new book, Black Box Thinking would say that it depends on your attitude to failure or mistakes.

Syed compares and contrasts the attitude to mistakes taken by two professions. The medical and the aviation professions.

Aviation is now the safest form of transport in the world. The safety has been built upon the openness and attitude of the profession to admit to and learn from mistakes that are made. Blame culture has been replaced by learn culture. Pilots see as part of their responsibility the chance to share what has gone wrong in an attempt to improve. Memorably in the book one pilot says that the safety has been built on previous aviation deaths.

Compare that to the medical profession. In the US the third largest cause of death in hospital behind cancer and heart disease is claimed to be medical error. Yet doctors are pathologically reluctant to admit to mistakes.

Failure is inevitable in a complex world. The key is to harness these lessons as part of a dynamic process of change. Kneejerk blame may look decisive, but it destroys the flow of information. World-class organisations interrogate errors, learn from them, and only blame after they have found out what happened.

For England Rugby and the rest of us black box thinking requires us to look very deeply into what has gone wrong and why? What processes do we need to change? How do we record and measure both success and failure? What do we do next to improve future outcomes?

For the negotiator this black box mind-set is critical. In many ways it is the step that we often neglect in either elation or despair, but build it in to your thinking and the future may be a brighter place after all.

Anyone want a second hand England shirt?

Alan Smith


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Alan Smith

About the author:

Alan Smith
My background is marketing and advertising. After graduating in Economics I entered the agency world to become, at 28, MD of London's largest independent below-the-line marketing provider.

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