Black Box Theory

  • 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?

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.

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

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The Captain has no control over how the points are spent or when these are withdrawn.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.

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.

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.

Originally published at on February 26, 2019.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Bill Coletti

Bill Coletti

CEO / Founder of - Crisis Communications and Reputation Management Firm, Proud father, son, brother and friend. Native Floridian, proud 'Nole.