To err is human.


In his book “Black Box Thinking”, Matthew Syed investigates how the airline industry is exemplary in using information from those rare instances that something has gone wrong to improve their systems. Instead of covering up or brushing off mistakes, they interrogate them to prevent them from happening again.


When a mistake is made, we want to foster a culture at Fountain where the person who made it stands up and says “Hey, I made a mistake! Can someone help me fix it? And how can I stop it from reoccurring?” – rather than making like an ostrich and burying their head in sand.

So we’ve taken the concept of Black Box Thinking from Matthew Syed’s book and created a process based on it that works for our agency – as a structure to turn any given mistake into a valuable learning moment. Because, heck, even an ostrich can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs…

When something goes wrong in an aspect of our work – whether it’s a checklist that was overlooked, something not checked properly or a communication error with a client – we ask the team member (or members) involved to “Black Box It”.

We have a really simple Google Form that asks the team member to go through the incident. The aim is not for them to explain themselves to us, but to interrogate the situation themselves.


Our questions are:

  • What went wrong?
  • What was the impact? (i.e. did it cost a client money, did it damage a client relationship, how did it impact targets?)
  • What were the surrounding circumstances? (i.e. was your workload overwhelming, was the client putting pressure on? Your answer will help us identify patterns)
  • How could it have been avoided or prevented from happening? (i.e. what could have been done differently, whether by you, the company or someone else? If you’re not sure, this could be the basis of a discussion.)
  • What can be added to our process or checklist to avoid it happening in the future? (If you’re not sure, this is a topic for discussion)
  • Is there anything else you would like to add?


We have found that our Fountaineers have responded really well to this process. There’s something about it that takes away from the emotion of making a mistake and allows them the space to be objective about it.

Sometimes our guys are asked to go through the Black Boxing with one of us – other times, we ask them to go through it themselves and present the outcomes. I think Black Boxing will be most valuable when completed by the person or people who take responsibility for the mistake – it is not a punishment or censure, but a way to turn a mistake into an opportunity for organisational improvement.

Because if to err is human, then to learn from it is bloody brilliant.