The Mystery of the Black Box

The black box is usually associated with tragedy.  However, this post is not about airplane accidents.  It is about wasted opportunities and undefined steps.

There is a cartoon that shows a blackboard full of calculations.  The calculations on the left hand side are, presumably, Step One and those on the right hand side must be Step Three.  Between the two there is a step called “Then a miracle occurs”.  One scientist says another “I think you should be more explicit here in Step Two.”


Click on picture to see cartoon

Click on the picture to go to Sidney Harris’ web site to see his cartoon.  The “miracle” describes an unidentified, yet-to-be-invented step that makes the model work.  Defined steps or processes flow into the black box.  Something undefined occurs there, and the desired result then comes out.

The airplane flight recorder can be called a “black box” in this sense because the flight crew’s conversations go into the recorder and these recordings are later retrieved.  How the recording was made is a problem that was out-sourced to specialists.  Unless there is a recording error, investigators are generally going to analyze what was said, not how it was recorded.

Here’s an illustration of the black box process from Wikipedia.


It s all very well to outsource the design of the black box to experts.  However, in some business processes we find “black box thinking” goes on without awareness that it is occurring.

Here’s an example.  A company develops a mission statement.  Goals and strategies are defined.  That’s the input.  Employees are more mission aligned and spend more time on the right things and less time on the wrong things.  That’s the output.  In between is everything that needs to be done implement the plan and to restructure the business.  If the implementation is a yet-to-be-defined black box, then don’t expect much to change.  Unless a miracle occurs.

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