This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Black Box Thinking" by Matthew Syed. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you require feedback for improvement? What happens when you don’t use feedback for improvement?

Feedback for improvement is a learning mechanism that allows for failure, analysis, and adjustment. Without feedback, it is nearly impossible to progress.

Keep reading for examples of organizations that use feedback for improvement and those that don’t.

Failure-Averse Organizations Don’t Like Feedback

Failure-averse organizations lack systems that enable them to learn from failure. Unlike learning-oriented organizations, they don’t gather data, conduct investigations, analyze what went wrong, or implement changes. Often, they don’t even record their mistakes. Failure-averse organizations don’t use feedback for improvement.

No Feedback Means No Improvement

In short, these organizations lack a learning mechanism. Specifically, Syed explains that they lack a feedback loop that enables information to flow from failure to analysis to adjustment to implementation

An individual or organization needs feedback for improvement since feedback tells you what’s going wrong. If you don’t know where things aren’t working, you can’t improve

For example, raising children involves ambiguous feedback that makes it difficult to know how you’re doing. Since there’s no clear and obvious benchmark for what a “good” job raising a child is, and there’s no clear and obvious feedback, it’s difficult to improve on a measurable scale.

(Shortform note: In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin advocates for a particular kind of feedback: examining the theme of your errors. In short, gather data by noting the mistakes you repeatedly make. Then, examine your notes and identify any patterns. Look for both the emotional and technical aspects of your error, and work to correct them. For example, a parent who gets impatient with their toddler might work to change their mindset while also studying better childcare techniques. To maintain the feedback loop, continue to note and correct your patterns of error.)

By contrast, if you’re learning piano, it’s obvious when you play the wrong notes. With clear and immediate feedback for improvement, you can effectively learn.

In professions that lack readily available feedback, professionals do their best with the skills they’ve developed, but they often fail to improve over time. Emergency surgeons, for example, don’t gather specific data about how well they set a broken bone, implanted metal pins, or whether they make the right choices under pressure. To do so would require setting up mechanisms, like regular patient check-ins, to gather feedback over the long term. 

(Shortform note: In The Bullet Journal Method, Ryder Carroll suggests using a journal to conduct daily reviews. In your morning review, look back over previous journal entries to get a sense for where you were and where you are now. In the nightly review, look over the day’s tasks and ideas to determine how well you’ve done. This tangible feedback gives you direct information about how to improve—for example, you might learn that setting 11 tasks is too many, so you adjust your to-do list until you learn what you can handle.)

No Feedback Means the System Stagnates

Syed argues that the absence of feedback for improvement is a systemic problem, not a cultural one. The employees are intelligent, capable professionals, but workers can only perform as well as the system enables them to. If an organization’s systems aren’t designed to learn from failures, they simply won’t get better—and neither will the employees. 

Imagine a hospital that neglects to optimize its triage system for the emergency room’s busiest night. They know they’ll be overburdened, yet make no adjustments, allowing employees to continue struggling.

Compare this to a hospital that had faced the same problem, but took the opportunity to learn and implement changes. By learning from their overburdened ER, they remove the chance to repeat past mistakes. For example, say the problem was a disorganized waiting space. To fix this, the hospital restructures seating areas for each type of patient emergency. 

Now, staff can find patients at a glance—the system itself ensures better performance. Put another way, you can’t make mistakes that the system has already corrected. 

(Shortform note: In his 3-2-1 newsletter, James Clear explains that we don’t “rise to the level of our goals,” we “fall to the level of our systems.” He defines your personal system as the network of habits you’ve built, and we can extend this to organizations: An organization’s system is the network of habits and habit-enabling tools (like error reporting mechanisms) that all its people engage in. If part of the system is to report errors and openly admit fault, any new employees will default to that behavior, “falling” to the level of the system they’ve stepped into.)

Feedback for Improvement: An Organizational Necessity

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  • How an organization’s culture and systems either promote or prevent learning
  • The steps for learning from failure in our complex world
  • How to shift mindsets around failure to promote a learning-oriented institution

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