“Sometimes I wonder whether I have any real intelligence or if I just have enough random bits of surface knowledge to bullshit my way through most things.”


“Some conversations are not about what they’re about.”

Anne Carson


Sometimes you give a crappy answer to a good question which makes you think of a non-crappy answer to the question. In this case it is about black box thinking. Marshal Kirkpatrick asked me about black box thinking in this Sprinklr podcast  and I hashed the answer. Time to clean it up.

Black boxes

Black box thinking (making sense of the black box output)

Framing concepts (to enable choicemaking)


Black blackboard in brick loft, close up

Black boxes are the increasing number of things that we do not really, or completely, understand and, yet, we are dependent upon them. Black boxes range from a television, smartphone to even ‘big data.’ In almost all cases we interact with a superficial surface intelligent delivery from the internal black box. In our gadgets how these things produce isn’t really that important (until it breaks down), but in a business context black boxes inform real decisions with real consequences.

Black box thinking is the increasing amount of thinking we need to do USING what black boxes give us. In society it is the things algorithms throw in our faces to read and how we think about it (or manage the algorithms to insure we maintain some perspective). In business it is the dashboards, excel spreadsheets, and, yes, algorithms, that are designed to tell us “what is important to know.”

Framing concepts is how we take ‘the important stuff we should know’ and make it tangible. Its most effective form is a concept – so that we can make decisions.  To do this, to make the black box tangible, you actually need to find cooperating data points.

** note: I would note that the highest value in anything occurs when finding the optimal mix of cooperating variables/people/ideas/data.

Cooperating data points is a term I made up. I made it up because I have seen far too many people pull random bits out of a black box, or some dashboard, and suggest these are the bits that we should use to inform our choice at hand. The random bits look good in isolation, but do not necessarily ‘cooperate’ with each other. Effective concepts do not rely on randomness, they rely on cooperation of knowledge, data and information.

** note: the bits inform, do not decide for us.

Using black boxes

I disagree with a portion of the business world (mostly older people in my generation) that we need to become skilled at understanding the black box. The argument is “if you do not understand how it works, how can you understand how to work the information it gives you.” Well. I don’t understand how to build software or algorithms or even a powerpoint presentation (well), but I understand the potential impact of all of them and assess their outputs with an eye toward, well, impact. I need to understand how the output relates to the outer contextual environment and assess whether they relate to the most important aspects of what I need to know to navigate the context. That said. The real issue is navigating certainty versus uncertainty or ‘black & white versus gray” rather than understanding the black box.

All black boxes have really done is teach us, or make us more aware, that we deal in a world of probabilities, not certainty or predictions. That true black & white choicemaking is a myth and that you seek shades of gray. You learn that your decisions are dabbling in the shades of gray and yet you have to be committed to the decision if you want any hope of progress. Gray resides in probabilities and the black box offers you the prompts to inform your probabilities assessment.

Here is where I bring in ‘out of the box.’ Crucial to effective black box thinking is to stop all the ‘out of the box’ thinking mumbo jumbo and embrace the fact anything you would have considered ‘out of the box’ actually resides inside the black box. Yeah. Inside the box resides all of the out of the box shit you are seeking. Go figure.

It is inside the box where it happens.


“Chance favors the connected mind.”

Steven Johnson


The black boxes

The future of business resides in the hands & minds of humans/people. Period. But it would be absurd to ignore that the hands & minds will be empowered by the black boxes and technology:

  • Knowledge <or information of shit> is available to anyone with access to a computer
  • There are an increasing amount of things which are ‘black boxes’ of inner workings <they work … but the majority of us have no clue how they work>which compress thinking & doing time
  • Great decision making in today’s business world is more often defined by on how good you are at assessing what aspects should be accepted on ‘faith’ <the black box designated aspects> and what aspects need real knowledge & understanding
  • It has never been possible to know everything … but in today’s world it is mind numbingly <and humbling so> obvious … and it has become more accepted to learn on the go


We are increasingly surrounded by ‘black boxes.’ These are complex constructs that we do not understand even if they are explained to us. We cannot comprehend the inner processes of a ‘black box’, but nonetheless we integrate their inputs and outputs into our decision-making.

The trick to black box thinking <the intangible, the uncertainty and vague ‘knowing’> is to make it more tangible, therefore, useful. This is ‘framing.’

Cooperating data

I talk about framing and the importance of effectively framing things all the time. I believe I should talk about ‘cooperating data/information’ more. Framing demands a skill in assembling ‘cooperating data.’ Just like building the foundation of any structure the cornerstones need to have some semblance of relationship. In crafting that cooperation you offer concepts people can assess and envision how it could impact the future (or some existing situation).

Discovering cooperating data is a skill, and art, and using cooperating data is an art, and skill.

Regardless. Black box thinking is the key to unlock business agility, adaptability, ability to meet emergent opportunities, well, the ability to be successful in a complex business environment.

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Written by Bruce