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Black boxes

It can be helpful to think of your project or organisation as a black box – not a flight data recorder, but as something that takes certain inputs, does certain things inside its workings, and creates an output. Many things in your life – if you don’t understand their workings – are effectively black boxes:

  • A car takes petrol and maintenance and inputs from you as the driver and as its output gets you from A to B;
  • Your computer takes commands and outputs documents, communication, entertainment;
  • An air conditioner takes electricity and outputs cold air;
  • Schools take children and young people and output slightly different children and young people…

Questions for a black box

Viewing the project as a black box allows you to focus on what it does overall:

What outputs do you hope for from the black box?
What outputs does it actually produce?
Would the world be better if it produced more?
Does it have side effects, for good or bad?
What inputs does it require?
Which inputs are rare or difficult or expensive?
Are substitutes or entirely different inputs available?

Machines within the machine

Once you’ve thought about the project or organisation as a whole, you can ask the same question about each function within it: how does a particular function take an input, and turn it into something that contributes towards the overall output?

What are the outputs you need from your…

  • HR department?
  • IT team?
  • Production unit?
  • Marketing team?
  • Sales department?
  • Financial team?

What inputs do they require?

Mapping your project

With these black boxes in place – like the various organs of the body, or systems within a car – you can map out what your organisation does, how inputs flow through it, what transformations the inputs undergo, how they interact, and how well each black box contributes towards the overall output.


Once you have your project or organisation mapped, you can repeat this progress to look at what happens inside each of the black boxes. What are the major processes and sub-processes? How do they interact? What tools are used – and could they be improved? Could small improvements to the output – in quality or consistency – make a significant difference to the next black box in the chain? What can we automate?

Seeking simplicity

Working through an exercise like this strips away some of the complexity of your project, helping you to ignore the million-and-one things that demand your attention and focus on the ones that are most important. You might use the map of your project to delegate roles (“Using these inputs, it’s your job to produce these outputs.”) and evaluate performance. You might use it to look for things you need to add, or things you can do without.

The map is not the territory, but it will help you get the lie of the land, and to work out where to go next.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...