Black Box Theory

Black Box Theory

February 26, 2019

Critical Takeaways

  • It is easy to attribute crisis success as simply being lucky when in fact companies have earned this ‘luck’ through hard work and preparedness.
  • A concept in sailing is that of a ‘black box’ into which a Captain deposits ‘points’. They can then draw on these points to give them a little bit of extra luck in tough times.
  • Companies can build up their own black box ‘credit’ by preparing thoroughly prior to a crisis. These points will earn you a little extra luck in a crisis but this is based on your hard work up front.

Well prepared or just lucky?

Previously, I wrote about “Patagonia envy”: how simply copying a successful corporation’s path won’t result in your own high reputation. Instead, you need to do what’s appropriate for your firm and put in the hard work required. Not long afterward I identified another kind of envy that occurs and, similarly, one that overlooks the need for hard work.

This time, it’s envying companies who seem lucky. Like “Patagonia envy”, not understanding how companies create their own ‘luck’ will interfere with your crisis response.

There are some companies that just seemed to get crisis response right and Home Depot is a great example. Their crisis managers have been in place for several years and, although I wouldn’t say they’ve seen it all, they’ve certainly seen a great deal. They are well prepared, have good systems and procedures in place and always act quickly and decisively developing the necessary speed of trust required in the face of crisis. Their success can seem effortless but this apparent ease masks a lot of hard work, effort and years dedicated to honing their abilities.

However, instead of recognizing that this success is based on hard work and effort, people can start to think that these firms are just lucky. The perception is that they ‘dodged a bullet’ rather than anticipated what was approaching and were ready for it. So there’s a lot there to admire and learn from successful companies like Home Depot but we need to avoid dismissing their success as simply being lucky.

However, I do believe that there’s a degree of luck involved. But it’s not the kind you might be thinking of.

Instead, this luck is earned through what’s called the ‘black box’ theory.

The Black Box

As you know, I love to draw parallels from the world of sailing and what we do in crisis and reputation management. The black box theory comes from an article by John Vigor which suggests that every seagoing vessel has an imaginary black box into which the Captain deposits ‘chits’ or points. This black box then acts as a kind of bank account that the Captain can draw on when there’s an emergency.

The points from your black box help you buy your way out of trouble but there’s one catch.

The Captain has no control over how the points are spent or when these are withdrawn. They also don’t know how many points are in the black box.

However, they have complete control over how the points get into the box: they earn them. Every little thing that captain does onboard to protect the crew, keep the vessel in good shape and to anticipate problems adds a point to the black box.

Look into that nagging little noise that you hear from the engine instead of ignoring it? Add a point. Fix a small rip in a sail rather than leaving it for another day? Get a point. Spend some time reviewing the chart and tide tables for tomorrow’s trip instead of enjoying a beer and watching the sunset. Get a point. (Some points are harder to earn than others….)

Over time, these points build up in your black box allowing you to buy your way out of trouble when it comes. You don’t have control over how or when these points will come into play but you know that they’re there and that in itself is an advantage.

And my belief is that companies that get crisis response right have their own black box. Instead of being plain lucky, that luck was earned by paying into the black box, typically over a long period of time. They’ve been paying attention to the little things that could slip them up and they’ve been taking care of the ‘nice to have’ items, not just the basics.

Adding points to your black box

You can see this in practice with companies like Home Depot. They have significant situational awareness systems set up but, instead of just using these when a crisis hits, they are always monitoring what’s going on. That way, they can evaluate incoming signals from social media and maintain good organizational communication between operations, manufacturing, and communications at all times. This continual monitoring and communications earns a point.

Similarly, they have a crystal-clear chain of command, know who needs to be in the room in order to make decisions and have robust processes and procedures. But they have also looked at how the delegation of authority between individuals and teams works and when things need to be escalated. This ‘next level’ thinking adds another point to their black box.

They also run crisis simulations, training and planning regularly. These range from sessions as simple as debriefing about a situation that impacted a competitor and asking ‘what if that were us?’ to full-spectrum simulations involving all parties and agencies. Each of these develops their skill base, expands their library of pattern recognition templates and, you’ve guessed it, adds a point to their black box.

So the black box theory isn’t a set of hard and fast rules of what adds points to your box or how many points an activity is worth. Rather, it is following your conscience and thinking ‘what could I be doing to prepare?’, rather than just asking ‘what’s the minimum preparation I can get away with?’

Ask yourself, how can you go above and beyond the basics to start adding those extra points to your black box.

Remember, it’s impossible to know the exact balance in your black box, but you’ll certainly know that it’s empty if you haven’t added any points. So give yourself that extra edge and keep adding points by going that extra mile.

Well prepared and lucky

As with storms at sea, a company can’t hope to avoid every critical moment that could impact its long-term reputation. Sometimes a storm arrives unexpectedly and you have to respond for the safety of your boat and your crew. If you have only done the bare minimum to prepare, you will have an empty black box and there’s no overdraft facility.

Instead, you need to be adding points constantly. Putting your experience into practice, identifying ways to mitigate risks, conduct preventive maintenance, and think about ways that you and your team can be faster and have better alignment across the whole organization.

If you have prepared and gone that extra mile, you can cash in those points from the black box and buy yourself a little bit of extra luck when you need it most. But remember, it’s not just any old luck, it’s luck you’ve earned.


Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.