Not only is Matthew Syed the leading authority on high performance, but he's an award-winning author, columnist, broadcaster, and was the British table tennis number one for almost a decade. His first book 'Bounce' published in 2010, was praised as “one of the most intelligent and thought-provoking books about sport ever written.” We sat down with Matthew to discuss his books 'Bounce' and 'Black Box Thinking', the importance of marginal gains, and why we need to fail in order to succeed. Watch the full interview or read the transcript below.
In conversation with Matthew Syed
What did you do before becoming a writer?
Before becoming a writer, I was the British Table Tennis number one for ten years, three-times Commonwealth champion, and I played in two Olympic games.
It feels like quite a long time ago now, but I think playing sport and thinking about high performance; what it takes psychologically; great practice; great coaching; leadership; the ability to translate one’s skills into peak performance, under pressure; all of those things, and in fact, occasionally falling apart under pressure myself… all gave me a deep interest in how performance happens and how one can get an edge. So, it was a very good grounding for what I’ve subsequently gone into.
When did you become a journalist?
I started writing for The Times in the last couple of years of my table-tennis career, realising that I couldn’t play table tennis forever and that I’d need to find something else to go into. And it’s been a brilliant platform to explore all of the richness of sport. Because sport really is a metaphor: it’s a way of understanding the human mind, human performance, competition, and all sorts of things of that kind. So, it’s been a really great thing to do.
What are the fundamental character traits of a winner?
I think the key thing in order to be a high-performer is humility. It’s not a problem to be self-confident, to have a big ego or to think that one is exceptional – providing that is yoked to a deeper humility recognising that however good I am, however exceptional, I can nevertheless still improve. Because unless one has that, unless one recognises ‘I can still get better’ it cuts away the motivation to improve, to reflect, to be self-aware, to look for the data that can rationally help one to improve one’s performance.
If one just has ego and self-esteem without that, then as soon as one finds the information that one’s less than perfect, then one’s threatened; one starts to self-justify; one gets prickly and defensive and that’s the hallmark of low-achieving institutions and individuals.
How important is a vision to success in business?
Vision is very important in that one needs to anticipate the big disruptive changes that are going to affect any business environment. One needs to have a big picture. But one needs to combine that with the capacity to see the detail; because even within the existing framework, one’s existing assumptions, there is always the chance to find marginal gains; to find small improvements, that over time, as they accumulate, can have a very dramatic effect.
I think great institutions have that capacity both to see the big picture – to have very large-scale innovation – but also the fine detail, so that one gets delivery right, one makes sure that the production processes are seamless.
In the terms of ‘Team Sky’, one takes the same mattresses from stage to stage during the ‘Tour de France’, for a marginal improvement in sleep quality. Anti-bacterial hand-gel to cut down on the risk of infections. Great hospitals are always finding small improvements to improve patient safety. And you need to have that dual perspective.
In your book ‘Bounce’, you discuss ‘the talent myth’, what is this?
In Bounce, I take aim at the idea that talent is the dominant feature of high-performance; that you can look at somebody kicking a football, and because it looks effortless you assume that they’re talented. In fact, effortless performance comes from long-term practice, and everybody in a complex area who has got to the top has demonstrated the capacity to clock up a lot of practice over a long period of time; high-quality practice; motivated practice; purposeful practice. And my fear is that when people think that success is effortless for the super talented, it destroys their own capacity to work hard in the long-term.
Think of a child who starts playing the violin, and isn’t instantly a virtuoso, and they assume, ‘well I’m obviously not cut out for this’, and they give up… that’s a disaster. We need people to understand, it’s really important to understand, that success in all great institutions, from science to cycling, is a long journey. And that understanding is what helps us to take the first step.
How would you define success?
Success can be defined in all sorts of different ways. A good way for an individual is to reach one’s own potential. And often one’s own assumptions of where one’s potential lies are far too low. We have a great capacity to improve when we engage with the world and find those incremental improvements.
In a competitive environment, success is beating the competition, and I wouldn’t want to diminish the importance of beating the competition, that’s part of who we are as individuals, and that’s part of what it means to be successful in the free market.
What motivates people to become successful?
I think in terms of motivation, the love of winning is important, the fear of losing is also not insignificant. I would also strongly suggest that it’s strongly related to passion; being genuinely motivated in the activities that one is pursuing. And I think that great organisations are able to position what they’re doing as somehow significant, having a purpose, having meaning, changing the world.
I think that far too often we think of motivation just through the prism of money… that’s an external motivator – if you work hard we’re going to give you some cash. That’s not insignificant, it’s not trivial. But once people are earning a fair amount, you can’t buy more motivation by offering more and more money. It often has paradoxical effects.
We need to recruit deeper wells of emotion and meaning and passion. That has tremendous power, and that’s supported by very good evidence in the literature on psychology.
What is Black Box thinking?
‘Black Box thinking’ as a title, came from the aviation industry, which uses black boxes to learn from failures so that they can make sure that the same accidents don’t ever happen again.
I don’t say that people should have a literal black box but that as a metaphor for learning from mistakes, from failures, from near misses, from sub-optimal outcomes, is absolutely vital. In fact, it’s a necessary condition for learning at any time in human history, and it will be the same at any time in the future for our species - we’ve got to get that right.
What is a good example of Black Box thinking?
A good example is that in the 1940s B17 bombers were crashing inexplicably. So they actually tried to learn what’s going wrong. They commissioned a psychologist to do an investigation, and he found that the switch linked to the landing gear – that’s to say, the wheels – and the switch linked to the landing flaps, were identical and side-by-side on the dashboard. Under the pressure of a difficult landing, with all sorts of things going on, the pilots were pulling the wrong switch and the planes were belly-flopping onto the runway, with catastrophic results. So he proposed adding a small wheel shape to one of the switches, and a small flap shape to the other, so now they’re easily identifiable under pressure. Accidents of that kind disappeared overnight.
And this system of learning, constantly. As we speak, reports are being filed by pilots in real-time, so that the weaknesses that were not envisaged can be analysed and learnt from. And that has had an incredible effect. Aviation was the riskiest form of transport at the beginning of the last century. Last year the accident rate for the major airlines was one crash for every 8.3 million take-offs. That isn’t because – they’re talented people in aviation – but the main reason is a culture of continuous improvement.
How significant is failure in order to succeed?
To understand the real significance of failure, think about the history of science. Simplifying a little bit, science didn’t improve between the time of the ancient Greeks and the early seventeenth century. Since then, science has revolutionised our world, again and again, and again. Why the difference? – the reason is the attitude to failure.
Between the Greeks and the seventeenth century every time somebody came up with some data that showed that the existing model of the world was wrong – the existing model of the world was that the earth is the centre of the universe; it’s six-thousand years old – but people were so threatened by the data that showed that it was wrong, that when people came up with the data they would kill them. That’s how threatened people were.
When Galileo developed a telescope that essentially, demonstrated that the sun was the centre of the solar system, and he presented it to the scholars of the day, they wouldn’t look at it. This was a chance to learn more about the world, but they were too threatened by it. Only when science engaged with the data that showed the defects in the existing models, did they create a process that led to consistent revolutions, from Newton to Einstein and then beyond.
That psychology, that has transformed science from an under-performing institution to mankind’s most-successful institution, is exactly the same as the psychology that creates successful organisations, businesses and individuals.
How would you summarise the topics on which you speak?
The main topics that I’m interested in, I can summarise it in one phrase: ‘high performance’. What does that mean? – well, in safety-critical industries: making the system safer. For innovative industries: how do we become more innovative? For sport: how do we make sure that we are firing on all cylinders, maximising the potential of our people.
‘High performance’ sounds like a simple, almost reductionist topic, but it has huge breadth. It encompasses psychology, learning, culture, and everything in-between.
Why do you enjoy speaking at events?
I really enjoy speaking to audiences, partly because it gives me a chance to discuss some of the ideas that I’ve developed, mainly because I always insist on doing a Q&A… hearing the perspective of the audience and seeing how they would challenge my perspective.
What are the context difficulties of integrating a proper learning culture into that particular organisation? – that’s a huge learning opportunity for me. It means that every time that I go and speak to an organisation I’m picking up really interesting themes, patterns, that make it difficult sometimes to create truly learning cultures. And that’s helpful because one needs to know what the challenges are in order to address them.
At the end of a speech, how do you like your audience to feel?
In an ideal world, I want the audience to leave the auditorium challenged; to have some new ideas; some practical notions that they can actually take into their lives and into their work; and also to feel like they’ve had the chance to challenge my perspective, too.
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