Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed: Summary

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This is a must read. Matthew Syed drives home the importance of diversity in both our personal and professional lives. Reading the full version will equip you with real-life examples on the importance of diversity and teach you different methods you can use to promote diversity and reduce unconscious bias.

Get the book here: Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking

1. Collective Blindness

Traditionally it can be easy to think of success in terms of the individual. Be it sports stars or inventors, their achievements are usually because of their efforts instead of others. While this may be the case sometimes, most of the time success is driven by intricate systems working efficiently. When facing today’s problems, we need to instead take a step back and look at the holistic perspective and the importance of working with others. 

Syed explains this point well with this analogy: Imagine you are watching a colony of ants, if you took the individualistic perspective, you could spend ages looking at one ant trying to figure out what is going on but not learn much. To see the magic happening, you need to take a step back and look at the picture as a whole, what you would then see is individuals all contributing to a larger mission.

Now, let us not get too caught up on the topic of ants. This same dynamic happens with humans too. Most of the challenging and worthwhile work today is undertaken in groups – mainly because most issues are too complicated to solve by oneself. In science and engineering, most papers are written by academic teams and in medicine, collaborations outnumber individual contributions three to one.

But, it’s not as simple as just working with friends to solve a problem. Working with friends who think alike can feel like a great experience, decisions are made quickly, there are usually fewer arguments, and everyone has a good time. But, doing this too much denies ourselves of an important learning opportunity – we must work with people who have different perspectives too.

Complex problems generally rely on multiple layers of perspectives. The more diverse the team, the larger range of potentially viable options there are. Whilst we all have our own ‘blind-spots’ which we cannot see. We can lean onto others to help make us aware of them.

When it comes to creating a team, having diversity is important. Check out my article How Diversity Can Help Both You and Your Team Flourish for some more detailed reasons why.

2. Rebels versus Clones

Having a diverse team is not enough. The ‘Rebel ideas’ – those which are new or against the status-quo, that come with diversifying your teams need to also be welcomed. This doesn’t mean different ideas should immediately be accepted, but they should always be considered. If the new ideas have been considered, and they bring benefits – then great, they should be implemented, however, if they do not bring any positives, then it is only right to reject them. These new ideas not only bring the opportunity to try new things but also to challenge the current ones and make sure current logic and thinking is correct.

Everyone will bring something to the team. An interesting way of thinking about diversity within teams is to think about this example in the book. If you have 10 of the best minds who all think alike, then the ideas brought to the table are effectively just one person’s worth. However, if you have 10 minds all thinking differently, then there is no limit on the amount of creative and inventive ideas that will emerge.

3. Cognitive Dissent

One thing which is commonly agreed upon amongst psychologists and anthropologists is the significance of dominance hierarchies. Humans are very similar to other primates and even lobsters according to Jordan Peterson – You can check out other things he has written here: The 12 Rules of Life by Jordan Peterson: Summary

When it comes to simple decisions which need to be made quickly, dominant individuals are usually the most effective method. However, as the book mentions regularly, modern problems require modern solutions which are best achieved through collaboration and collective intelligence.

When you have a hierarchical structure which places emphasis on status, ‘rebel ideas’ can be perceived as threats and are likely going to be shut down or not listened to at all. Conventional meetings can cause these issues. Check out my article on why Meetings are a Terrible Idea: Here Are 4 Alternatives To Think About to see why hierarchies should be avoided when trying to solve problems.

An interesting study featured in the book is when the Rotterdam School of Management discovered that for projects dating back to 1972 teams led by junior managers were more likely to succeed than those with a senior manager in charge. Both the study and Syed believe that when a group is led by a dominant leader, knowledge can be squandered due to the hierarchical dominance dynamics.

Now, if knowledge squandered doesn’t kill off the team’s mission the zero-sum nature of hierarchical structures will. When you create a team where one’s personal progress depends on pulling others down to get yourself up, then you are opening the door to politics, backstabbing and constant vigilance.

But to make it more confusing, the answer isn’t to just remove all managers and let people do as they wish. Google tried this method early on and they faced problems. The lack of leadership confused the team, and people did not know who to listen to.

So, if hierarchies are required, but dominant leaders aren’t suited for a modern-day business, what can you do? Syed introduces a new type of trait a leader should exhibit – Prestige. These are individuals who attain influence and command without engaging in displays of dominance. Instead of forcing respect out of people, prestige gains it. Individuals who exhibit prestige share wisdom and are willing to teach others. They recognize they don’t know everything, so they instead listen attentively to others when they need to.

4. Innovation

When it comes to innovation, Syed suggests there are two types: Marginal, which means continuously improving what you already have and Recombinant where you take two ideas from different fields which are unrelated and fuse them together.

This chapter looks at the latter point in more depth. For this type of innovation to be effective, diversity is one of the key driving factors. You can see this in both business and academia. Academic papers with the “most impact” were found to have “atypical subject combinations” whereby academics bridged traditional boundaries and married two topics together – like physics and computation or anthropology and network theory.

While incumbents are proficient and knowledgeable in their area – this is important as you need to know what you are doing – it sometimes isn’t enough. Having a diverse opinion from different disciplines allows you to see your subject from the outside and see things more clearly. When you are immersed in a topic, you are surrounded by its intricacies and you are unable to see what is coming and capitalize on the unrealized potential of future innovations.

5. Echo Chambers

You would think that in a larger school, college or organisation you would be exposed to more views and ideas, and as a result, be swayed into becoming a well-rounded individual. However, Syed – with the help of two colleges as examples, disagrees. Instead, although smaller institutions have less overall diversity, it is harder to find others like yourself, meaning that you are forced to talk to others from different backgrounds. Alternatively, broad communities tend to construct networks that are narrow because there are enough groups of similar people to do that.  

Similar dynamics happen on online platforms. You would think that when people can see opposing views, they would have less extremist views. However, the complete opposite tends to happen and arguments become more polarised.

Syed investigates the role echo chambers play in this. Echo chambers aim to undermine the trust in alternative views. Instead of attacking evidence, individuals in echo-chambers usually rely on ‘ad-hominem’ arguments – whereby they attack the person’s credibility behind the point.  

Whilst in some scenarios this would be appropriate, if someone has done bad things then it makes sense, but when used to try and argue a point it can cause problems. A paper published in the Public Library of Science found that when you attack someone’s character it undermines people’s faith in conclusions just as much as if they saw contradicting evidence.

Echo chambers and ad-hominem arguments are all things which polarize groups and reduce discourse. Socrates himself argues that a good functioning democracy is linked to the quality of its deliberations, to help this we must aim to welcome diversity instead of creating echo chambers to hide in.

6. Beyond Average

Focusing on averages can be misleading. Most of the time, especially in complex systems, there is no such thing as a perfect average. Despite all the different unique individuals that exist, both today’s education and employment systems seem to focus on standardisation and making others fit around their systems rather than the other way around.

An interesting study into enabling uniqueness was done by Google. A team of psychologists gave workshops to sales and admin staff – those who would usually be working under a standardised process. Instead, they were taught to consider how they could play to their strengths and enhance their role that way.

Those who attended the workshops were rated by managers and co-workers as happier and higher performing and were 70% more likely to land a promotion. Ontop of performing their usual duties, by allowing the employees to be themselves more enabled them to take the iniative and develop the capabilities to create an original, personalised job which they didn’t only enjoy, but also excelled in.

Although there are some scenarios where people must fit the role, we should be focusing on moving towards embracing others uniqueness instead of trying to take it away from them. Check out my article on 3 Ways You Can Embrace Your Teams Uniqueness for some further interesting examples.

7. The Big Picture

This book drives home the importance of diversity. We still have a way to go on ensuring everybody is treated equally but with the right mindset and tools we will get there. Syed included some good examples on how to improve diversity, I have written an article called 3 Ways You Can Improve The Diversity In Your Teams which looks deeper into these suggestions.

The book finishes on a key bit of advice which I believe summarizes the book perfectly: When facing the world, aim to involve yourself in a culture which encourages new ideas, fosters dissent and has strong accepting networks which allow ‘rebel ideas’ to flow.

6 thoughts on “Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed: Summary”

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  3. Pingback: 3 Ways You Can Embrace Your Teams Uniqueness – The Herston Project

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  6. Have just finished this book. Fascinating, has a brilliant way to bring real life examples and showing the science / theory behind them. I have learned a great deal and am hooked. Thank you for the summary / analysis.

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