I’m not sure why, but recently I’ve heard the term ‘black box’ come up in conversation a lot. So far it’s been in reference to:
- Insurance companies using aircraft style black boxes in cars
- Matthew Syed’s book ‘Black Box thinking’
- The 90s pop trio responsible for this Link
Number 3 is a close 2nd but personally the first thing I think of when I hear the term ‘black box’ is a method for problem solving which I’ve come to use a lot.
When faced with a problem, my instinct is to start ‘mapping’. While this is a great approach, early in my career I had a tendency to drop straight down into the detail. I’d try and map every step of every process and get tangled up. This approach worked when I eventually finished mapping but I still wasted a significant amount of time mapping out areas that turned out to have no relation to the problem at hand.
I’ve got older, I’ve got wiser and lazier more efficient with my time. Car analogies are nearly always terrible but I’m going to have a go at using one to explain what I do now.
My current car is only my second in 15 years so I’m not exactly a ‘car guy’. However, even I know that if my car doesn’t move, there something wrong. If I was to adopt my old, ’map everything mentality’, it would look a bit like this (but with lots of arrows):
As impressive as this is, it must have taken ages! A more efficient way would be to start by putting the car in a hypothetical box and pretend I have no idea of its inner workings. Hence the term ‘black-box’. So, at a very simple level, it might look like this:
Fuel in, movement out. Sounds obvious but If I was even more unfamiliar with cars than I already am, I might not have checked this. Yes, using my old way I’d have a lovely picture of the entire workings of a car but the new way would have let me just walk down the garage with my jerry can, solve the problem and score a Ginsters in about 20 minutes.
If lack of fuel turned out not to be the problem, then I do have to open the box. However, I don’t just give up and revert to mapping everything again. I just fill the open box with….more black boxes! It now looks like this:
I’d start with the easy stuff (have I got all my wheels?) before moving onto the more complicated ones. For some boxes, I might need specialist knowledge, but, by adopting this method, I’ve narrowed down what kind of specialist knowledge I need and can avoid paying for a gearbox specialist to tell me I have a flat tyre. If I still haven’t found the problem, it’s time to open another box and repeat the process.
I use this approach for every problem I’m given as starting high level in this way works pretty much anywhere. You can black box a team, a department or even an entire business and really narrow your focus before getting bogged down in detail. Starting at the top sounds like an obvious place to start but when you’re knee deep in an area, especially one you know well, it’s much more tempting to start from the bottom. By using black boxes and staying as high level as you can for as long as you can, you can often stop yourself wasting time on the bits that really don’t matter.