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Video Assistant Referees: Black Box Thinking in Football and Learning From Failure

There are two schools of thought when it comes to defining and explaining where success comes from and how it is achieved. The first route to success is underpinned by the belief that talent is dominant. Success comes from good DNA, having a high IQ, and possessing ‘the gift’. This is defined as a ‘fixed mindset’. The second route to success is underpinned by the belief that hard work is required. It must be complemented by diligent practice and commitment to improvement, flexibility and adaptation. This is defined as a ‘growth mindset’.

In his excellent book, ‘Black Box Thinking’, Matthew Syed examines and compares two safety critical industries, aviation and healthcare. He argues that only one of them is willing to learn from failure, whilst the other is tarnished by a blame culture.

Aviation has systems in place to harness experiences and occurrences in order to improve and cut accident rates. Every near-miss event is voluntarily reported by pilots who are granted anonymity so the statistical totality can be checked to see where learning can be made from mistakes.

In 1960, there were 30 accidents per million take offs. In 1996, there were 1.2 accidents per million take offs. The aviation industry didn’t give themselves a pat on the back at this incredible achievement. Instead, they asked: ‘How can we keep improving?’ In 2005, there were 0.3 accidents per million take offs. This is an outstanding achievement underpinned by a process of reflective learning. Aviation has secured a culture of continuous improvement.

Globally in 2012, there were 4,394 aircraft near-misses, equating to 12 every day. Like the world’s most adaptable and agile organisations, the aviation industry takes every ounce of data from such occurrences and interrogates them with the goal of introducing reforms to eradicate mistakes completely. Large organisations, like those in football, led by seemingly intellectual leaders do not like to admit they are wrong or have made a mistake.

Leaders in aviation do. Black box thinking embraces learning from these mistakes. The black box referred to is the on-flight data recorders that capture everything measurable during flights. The data is analysed in every way possible to determine how improvements can be made.

A sub-optimal outcome is when something goes less well than expected. This label can be attributed to almost anything in the complex world we live in. There have been specific cases over the years where the performance of referees has been sub-optimal. Football, unlike aviation, does little to embrace mistakes and instead assigns blame.

How often do we hear the television pundits saying things like: “These are the best referees in the world and they shouldn’t be getting it wrong”. But they are. The powers that be in football suffer from what Syed calls ‘cognitive dissonance’. It is the refusal to accept that you were wrong.

In football, the governing bodies argue referees are highly talented officials and trained to the highest standards by the best professionals, so they should not be making mistakes. It doesn’t matter how talented the referee is – the complex nature of human movement on a football pitch will still somehow prevent them from seeing the totality of some events. The bodies refuse to admit that it is the system, not the referees, that is flawed.

Time and time again football’s governing bodies show a fixed mindset attitude by putting their efforts into self-justification, rather than learning. Leadership in any organisation must recognise a balance between genuine mistakes and negligence.

Arguably, the results of the recent Video Assistant Referee (VAR) trials can be described as sub-optimal. However, the trials are part of a bigger picture. VAR certainly needs refining and tuning to get it right. And that is a good thing. In creating the world’s first dual cyclone vacuum cleaner, James Dyson spent 15 years creating 5,126 versions that failed before he made one that worked. His desire for continuous improvement came from using every failure as a way to learn something new.

The biggest fault around VAR is that the FA announced it would be used from the FA Cup Third Round in 2018 and FIFA want it ready for the World Cup in the same year. Taking stock of Dyson’s 5,126 failures, or Thomas Edison’s reported 1000 failures in creating the lightbulb, by setting a time limit on perfecting the system, football’s governing bodies have created a closed loop situation where the faults around VAR will most likely not be fully mitigated.

In most large organisations, errors are usually systemic. The organisation should take action to retrain employees or make changes within systems to mitigate the error further. Error and failure are normal because they are traits of human nature. Football needs to separate learning and blame so it can improve.

The cognitive dissonance of football governing bodies displayed over the years has prevented them from reforming parts of the game to ‘trap’ officiating errors and stop them happening again.

Syed talks at length about marginal gains. Small changes that equal quick wins – and when stacked up their aggregating effect can be huge. Take the Olympic British Cycling Team – Sir Dave Brailsford identified small areas and increased their effectiveness by as little as 1%. He changed the drinks the team had in rest breaks, he taught them all how to wash their hands more effectively to reduce the spread of infections, he arranged for transportation of the team’s own mattresses so they didn’t have to sleep on uncomfortable hotel beds, and he streamlined the design of the bike pedals. None of these changes on their own would have any discernible impact – but their aggregated effect resulted in a swathe of gold medals for British cyclists and three Tour De France wins in four years by British riders.

Football’s governing bodies should be asking themselves: ‘If our officials are talented and highly trained – why do they keep making errors? What is stopping them getting some decisions right?’ In identifying the systemic cause of these errors and trapping them – they can be removed from the game entirely.

In authoritative organisations and industries, like healthcare and football, employees use something called mitigated speech and behaviour. It is where we say and act in a particular way because it is what we think leadership expects from us. Historically, nurses use mitigating speech to doctors because they don’t want to openly question them. In football, referees are under intense pressure to make correct decisions and not get it wrong – they can buckle in big-game situations and miss game changing decisions.

Referees will make better decisions when they are able to make ‘psychologically safe’ decisions. They need to draw on the advice of others. This is called ‘confident humility’. Referees should be confident enough with their talent and skill as an official – but humble enough to accept they might be wrong and draw on support from a video assistant. This is perfect growth mindset behaviour – and something the game’s governing bodies should embrace.

VAR can only be a good thing for football. Rejecting it and accepting errors as ‘one of those things’ is fixed mindset behaviour. In aviation, ‘one of those things’ could mean the difference between life and death. We should value that the International Football Association Board (IFAB) are embracing a culture of continuous improvement and looking to ‘trap’ and eradicate officiating errors.

Only by giving football the time it needs to look inside its own black box and analyse and reflect on the system’s failures will VAR ever reach the point where it will improve the game for the better.

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