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Book Review: Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed

Book Cover of Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed

Some books leave a mark when you read them, and I genuinely believe this is one of them. In this book, Matthew Syed is able to thoroughly revert a big part of Diversity Thinking moving away from being “a politically correct distraction, an issue of morality and social justice” and transforming it in a central notion for performance and Innovation. Not just in teams and organisations, but for the entire humankind.

The book title: Rebel Ideas have immediately attracted me. Since the appearance of Gary Hamel’s book Leading the Revolution, I’ve found a way to reconcile my “rebel mindset” with the work within a large corporation. This book has given me once more a confirmation that I’m on the right path!

Through compelling prose, well-sustained scientific research and many examples of really appropriate storytelling, the books examine how Diversity adds value in all of the human contexts, and especially in organisations. The way it demolishes the perception of “individual intelligence” and instead builds that of “collective intelligence” is staggering, and somewhat unsettling.

The book moves by examining the concept of homophily, the tendency for people (and unfortunately especially managers) to select people similar to them as well as with the idea that a trade-off exists between excellence and Diversity. Mixing people who have the same way of thinking delivers what is called Perspective Blindness, which refers to the fact that we are oblivious of our own blind spots. Adding different perspectives helps us gain a broader view of the world, and thus a better perception of problems, and higher chances of finding solutions.

Understanding the power of differences gives room to the exploitation of Group Wisdom, which is formed when different participants in a group add different perspectives and rich experiences.

The deepest problem of homogeneity is not the data that clone-like teams fail to understand, the answers they get wrong, the opportunities they don’t fully exploit. No, it is the questions they are not even asking, the data they haven’t thought to look for, the opportunities they haven’t realised are out there.

Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas

Building on the concept of Diversity of wisdom means moving away from purely looking at the external, “physical” aspects of Diversity. Often these aspects can influence a lot the Diversity of points of view, but there’s not a mathematical correspondence between the two elements. This is also one of the reasons why Critical Dissent needs to be built as a critical skill in the organisation. This, unfortunately, goes often against our innate desire to respect hierarchies. We need to ensure this aspect is built in the way we manage our teams if we want to profit from true enriching Diversity (which also means that we need to continue enriching our Listening Skills).

Fig.1: A Viusal Synopsis of Rebel Ideas by Dani Saveker

Developing Diversity is strictly connected to Innovation, and the author links a lot of fascinating findings on this relationship. A vital component of this is recombination, the cross-pollination of different perspectives.

The growth of the future will be catalysed by those who can transcend the categories we impose on the world; who have the mental flexibility to bridge between domains; who see the walls that we construct between disciplines and thought silos and regard them not as immutable but movable, even breakable.

Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas

I guess you can immediately see the powerful combination with Systems Thinking, which has been the subject of a recent post I wrote

Chapter 5 goes in-depth in analysing one of the most significant risks of not working on Diversity: Echo Chambers. The basic idea is that when people are part of broader communities, they are likely to construct networks that are more narrows. These networks, however, are not entirely isolated from the outside world. On the contrary, people get constant inputs from the outside but tend to be heavily polarised. There are many examples in the book, primarily rooted in the recent political polarisation. And this calls even more for the power of Diversity as a way to disentangle excessive polarisation because it can be dangerous for organisations as well.

Chapter 6 examines once more the big issue we have with “avegarianism”, as also defined in a book The End of Average by Todd Rose that I’ve recently reviewed.  Seen in the perspective of this book, if further strengthen the concept that also a lot of the “scientific method” has been flawed by reasoning in terms of averages, instead of looking at individuals.

In the conclusion, the book approaches still two broad subjects: the risk implicit in pure linear thinking, and the issue with Unconscious Bias

Dismantling unconscious bias, then, is not just a powerful first step in creating a fairer system; it is also a first step in creating a more collectively intelligent society.

Again, a concept we have seen in the recently reviewed book by Iris Bohnet What Works

We begin to see intelligence as not merely built upon the intellectual brilliance of individuals but upon their collective Diversity. We understand that Innovation is not only about the insights of particular people, but the networks that permit their recombination. And we see that the success of humanity is less about individual brains than the emergent properties of the collective brain.

Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas. (Bold is mine)

This new awareness has significant consequences in the way we should think of our organisations. If Diversity becomes a foundational value not because of the already mentioned “political correctness”, but rather because its implicit contribution to Innovation and performance, the entire organisational construct becomes something new.

In this new type of organisation, “Honest dissent is not disruptive, but imperative”, because, without it, progress cannot be achieved. In this new context:

people are considered loyal not when they agree, parrot and validate, but when they honestly disagree, challenge and diverge.

Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas

A truly Rebel Idea. Truly of World that I want to live in.

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I am an experienced and innovative HR professional dedicated in improving the way organizations achieve results through their people. Over the years I have worked on many projects in different HR domains, gaining a deep understanding of all key HR processes, from Talent Management to Recruiting, from Organizational Design to Leadership Development, from HR Transformation to HR & Payroll Systems implementation at International level. Working with Fashion Brands, leading retailer as well as, through consulting, international brands in industries like Banking, Manufacturing, Professional Services at both Headquarter and local level. Last but not least I consider myself an eclectic and creative personality, with many interests ranging from technology to arts and poetry.

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