Book Summaries

Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking by Matthew Syed.

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Everybody has theories. The dangerous people are those who are not aware of their own theories. That is, the theories on which they operate are largely unconscious. –  John Cleese

In Rebel Ideas:: The Power of Diverse Thinking, British Journalist and former table tennis player, Matthew Syed examines the power of ‘cognitive diversity’ – the ability to think differently about the world around us. The book focuses not upon demographic diversity but cognitive diversity (differences in perspective, insights, experiences and thinking styles). People from different backgrounds, with different experiences, often think about problems in different ways.

When smart people from a singular background are placed into a decision-making group, they are liable to become collectively blind.

The Danger of Homophily

Human Beings like to hang around people that are like and think like us. We can see what happens when a group of people come together who think in the same way. Every individual is smart. They each have impressive knowledge. But they are also homogenous. They know similar things, and share the same perspectives.

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. Indeed, evidence from brain scanners indicates that when others reflect our own thoughts back to us, it stimulates the pleasure centres of our brains.

Homophily is somewhat like a hidden gravitational force, dragging human groups towards one corner of the problem space.

Homophily is pervasive. Our social networks are full of people with similar experiences, views and beliefs. Even when groups start out with diversity, this can be squeezed out by a process of social osmosis as people converge upon the dominant assumptions, a phenomenon known as ‘assimilation’.

Clone-like Groups

The clustering of people in small parts of the problem space, then, is a predictable consequence of human psychology. Groups have an inbuilt tendency to become clone-like.

Wise Groups

Wise groups express a different dynamic. They are not clone-like. They do not parrot the same views. Instead, they are more like groups of rebels. They do not disagree for the sake of it, but bring insights from different regions of the problem space. Such groups contain people with perspectives that challenge, augment, diverge and cross-pollinate. This represents the hallmark of collective intelligence: how wholes become more than the sum of their parts.

Holistic Perspective

By focusing on individuals, there has been a tendency to overlook what we might call the ‘holistic perspective’. A good way to understand the difference is to consider a colony of ants. A naive entomologist might seek to understand the colony by examining the ants within the colony. Individual ants, after all, deploy a vast range of behaviours, such as collecting leaves, marching, etc. They are busy and fascinating creatures. And yet you could spend a year, indeed a lifetime, examining individuals and learn virtually nothing of the colony. Why?

Because the interesting thing about ants is not the parts but the whole. Instead of zooming in on individual ants, the only way to understand the colony is to zoom out. One step removed, you can comprehend the colony as a coherent organism, capable of solving complex problems such as building sophisticated homes and finding sources of food. An ant colony is an emergent system. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

We need to think of human performance not from the standpoint of the individual but from the standpoint of the group. From this more rounded perspective, we’ll see that diversity is the critical ingredient driving what we might term collective intelligence.

Frame of Reference

If two people have perspectives that are incomplete, joining them together can yield more insight, not less. They are both wrong, so to speak. They both miss something. But they are wrong in different directions. This means that their shared picture is richer and more accurate. You can glimpse this in a slightly different way by examining a fresh problem, this time something called an ‘insight puzzle’.

Sometimes you need to look at a problem in a new way, perhaps with the eyes of an outsider. The critical point is that solutions to complex problems typically rely on multiple layers of insight and therefore require multiple points of view.

The more diverse the perspectives, the wider the range of potentially viable solutions a collection of problem solvers can find.

Perspective Blindness

This refers to the fact that we are oblivious to our own blind spots. We perceive and interpret the world through frames of reference but we do not see the frames of reference themselves. This, in turn, means that we tend to underestimate the extent to which we can learn from people with different points of view.

Everybody has theories. The dangerous people are those who are not aware of their own theories. That is, the theories on which they operate are largely unconscious. –  John Cleese

 We have to see things before we can make sense of  them. This, in turn, hinges on differences in perspective. People who can help us to see our own blind spots, and who we can help to see theirs.

Diversity Richness

Teams that are diverse in personal experiences tend to have a richer, more nuanced understanding of their fellow human beings. They have a wider array of perspectives – fewer blind spots. They bridge between frames of reference.


When you are surrounded by similar people, you are not just likely to share each other’s blind spots, but to reinforce them. This is sometimes called ‘mirroring’. Encircled by people who reflect your picture of reality, and whose picture you reflect back to them, it is easy to become ever more confident of judgements that are incomplete, or downright wrong. Certainty becomes inversely correlated with accuracy.

Wise Groups

The first step for any group seeking to tackle a tough challenge, then, is not to learn more about the problem itself. It is not to probe deeper into its various dimensions. Rather, it is to take a step back and ask: where are the gaps in our collective understanding? Are we beset by conceptual blinkers? Has homophily pulled us into one tight corner of the problem space?”

Unless this deeper question is confronted, organisations run the risk of a pervasive glitch in group deliberation: examining a problem, looking ever-deeper, while doing little more than reinforcing their blind spots. We need to address cognitive diversity before tackling our toughest challenges. It is only then that team deliberation can lead not to mirroring, but to enlightenment.

Collective Intelligence emerges not just from the knowledge of individuals, but also from the differences between them.

Information Cascade

Each person has something useful to contribute (otherwise, why would they be in the team?), but instead of this being harnessed as part of a group decision, one member of the group, acting upon limited information, expresses a preference, skewing the entire dynamic. People start to share the information that corroborates that view, and subconsciously withhold information that might call it into question. Diversity of thought vanishes. This is called an information cascade.

When two or more people lean towards the same answer, it is easy to assume they arrived at it independently. This amplifies its persuasive power, causing others to lean towards it, too. This is where fads, stock-market bubbles and other bandwagon effects come from. Crowds are not always wise. They can become dangerously clone-like.

Crowds are not always wise. They can become dangerously clone-like.

Collectively Dumb

It is a curious irony. We spend much of our lives building up individual expertise. We spend years at school, then at university, then we undergo apprenticeships, or on-the-job training, and develop expertise, gradually attaining knowledge, insight and understanding. We then take the biggest decisions in forums that make us collectively dumb.

Conceptual Distance

Psychologists often talk about ‘conceptual distance’. When we are immersed in a topic, we are surrounded by its baroque intricacies. It is very easy to stay there, or to simply think about making superficial alterations to its interior. We become prisoners of our paradigms. Stepping outside the walls, however, permits a new vantage point. We don’t have new information, we have a new perspective. This is often considered to be a primary function of certain types of art. It is not about seeing something new, but about seeing something familiar in a new way.

The smaller the overall amount of diversity in the background population, the greater the limitations on finding conformity.

Innovation is about the interplay between individuals and the networks they inhabit. As knowledge accumulates, it feeds back into the collective brain, and, indeed, into natural selection itself.

Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias dominates many contemporary debates on diversity. This refers to the way that people are denied opportunities not because of a lack of talent or potential but because of arbitrary factors such as race or gender.

Shadow Boards

These consist of young people who advise executives on key decisions and strategies, thus lifting the conceptual blinkers that can attach to age. After all, each of us grew up at a particular time, and absorbed a particular cultural and intellectual paradigm. This influences the way we think in so many ways that we can become unconscious of it. 

Shadow boards typically consist of a group of the most able young people, drawn from across an organisation, who have regular input into high level decision-making. This enables executives to ‘leverage the younger groups’ insights and to diversify the perspectives that executives are exposed to.’ This, in turn, drives a greater flow of rebel ideas.

All the Best in your quest to get Better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.

Lifelong Learner | Entrepreneur | Digital Strategist at Reputiva LLC | Marathoner | Bibliophile |

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