Rebel Ideas Matthew Syed Review

I loved Matthew Syed’s book Black Box Thinking, (which we reviewed here) so I was excited to get stuck into his new offering, Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking.

Syed was recently appointed to a very diverse board of thinkers advising the Football Association, and found the experience so enlightening he has written a book about the benefits of ‘cognitive diversity’ in tackling problems – ranging from the world’s most complex like climate change, to the more prosaic biases we often don’t realize we are suffering from in our own teams and businesses.

Rebel Ideas is incredibly useful if you run a team, work in one, need to solve complex problems or even just want to learn more about your own cognitive blind spots.

Anyone involved in customer experience management or customer service delivery will be fascinated by this book. It really helped me see how important it is to have support and service teams capable not just of diverse thought but that they feel comfortable and safe to express those thoughts in front of peers and colleagues.

So grab a miniature cactus and let’s get started…

Rebel Ideas Book Review Matthew Syed

Rebel Ideas review: Top 5 takeaways

  • We should seek cognitive diversity instead of intellectual conformity. Syed begins Rebel Ideas by taking a tour through a fascinating overview of the concepts of frames of reference, and discusses various studies showing that people from different cognitive backgrounds see things in very different ways. He goes on to highlight the dangers that homogenous institutions carry silently with them, and shows how teams are better at solving complex problems when they bring insights from different regions of the “problem space”.
  • Different types of hierarchy and status can affect the way that information flows in a group. Syed talks about Dominant leadership styles, which can stifle people feeling they can speak up – in these circumstances leadership is effectively “taken”, versus Prestige styles, where people feel inspired to be led and comfortable in that group – and leadership is effectively conferred by group assent.
  • Why are some companies and organizations more creative and innovative than others? Syed talks about there being two types of innovation – incremental innovation where you painstakingly work on something to improve it through many iterations. And recombinant innovation – where you take two ideas from different fields or backgrounds, and join them together. Break through the ‘conceptual walls between subjects and thought silos’. Syed talks about rebel combinations – the old and the new, the left and right – coming together to make new things. I think we see this a lot in technology where start ups like Instagram have successfully fused social media with a magazine style approach; resulting in the stickiness of social engagement but the purchasing and influencing power of the top fashion and exercise titles.
  • The value of the outsider perspective. Did you know that immigrants are twice as likely to become entrepreneurs?HBR has shown that companies founded by immigrants grow faster and survive longer. This goes to the heart of Syed’s points at the start of the book about frames of reference; and the advantage of seeing things from a different perspective. Immigrants did not grow up in the country in which they created their businesses or inventions, and thus do not see things as being immutable in the same was as incumbents or residents. Although not an immigrant, my own experience having lived in the US and Canada as a child was certainly that you don’t take even things like snow days (never happened in Wales where I grew up), yellow school buses (that stop the traffic legally has to stop behind, again not something that happens here in the UK) or supermarkets where there were more than 3 types of breakfast cereal (I’m looking at you, chocolate rainbow unicorn lucky charms). Because of the the novelty of these things, they made much more of an impression on me than my schoolmates. I thought about them all quite hard and wondered about them. In some ways, looking back on it now, it was a kind of mindfulness at work.
  • The Internet brings with it big risks because despite its size, it just exposes you to more people who agree with you. Syed’s chapter on echo chambers is particularly interesting to me. I’m increasingly hearing from Customer Experience and Customer Service heads who are concerned about the self-selecting echo chambers that form on social media – meaning that their teams only ever hear negative feedback about their performance. As Syed says ‘For all its promise of diversity and interconnection, the Internet has become characterized by a new species of homogenous in-groups, linked not by the logic of kin or nomadic tribe, but by ideological fine-tuning.’ Diversity of feedback and input is so critically important in seeking a balanced view.

Rebel Ideas review: Top 5 quotes

  • “…Think how comforting it is to be surrounded by people who think in the same way, who mirror our perspectives, who confirm our prejudices. It makes us feel smarter. It validates our world view.. these dangers are as ancient as mankind itself.”
  • “…At most meetings then, communication is dysfunctional. Many people are silent. Status rigs the discourse. People don’t want to say what they think but what they think the leader wants to hear. And they fail to share crucial information because they don’t realise other people lack it.”
  • “…A major investigation by Google, which sought to identify why some teams perform better than others, found that psychological safety was the single most important factor driving success, a result that has been widely replicated.”
  • “…Immigrants have another advantage, too, inextricably linked to the notion of recombination. They have experience of two cultures, so have greater scope to bring ideas together. They act as bridges, facilities… If the outsider perspective confers the ability to question the status quo, diversity of experience helps to provide the recombinant answers.”
  • “…We need both conceptual depth and conceptual distance.”

I found many of Syed’s practical examples of places where cognitive diversity would have helped overcome disaster fascinating and terrifying in equal measure. Syed covers the CIA’s decision-making around 9/11, information-sharing during the 1995 Everest disaster and many more to support his case. An incredibly useful book which has made me think very hard about quite a number of aspects of team dynamic and management – Lindsay

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