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Book review: Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed

Are you surrounded by like-minded people? Are you good at recruiting people who will fit easily into your team and way of thinking? Are you disappointed that nobody around you comes up with any creative ideas? Is your team made up largely of people with a similar age, socio-economic background and gender?

If so, and I think we can all be guilty of it, Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking by Matthew Syed is a must read. It’s not a Christian Book but one in which I believe all leaders will find pearls of wisdom and reasons why they should be concerned if they answered “yes” to any of the above questions.

We all suffer from unconscious bias. We can be easily seduced by a narrative that makes so much sense to us, that we fail to check other perspectives. Proverbs 18:17 says, “In a lawsuit, the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.”

Rebel Ideas will suggest that a KKK Youth Leader, Derek Black, was de-radicalized because he chose to attend a small university rather than a large one. That CIA and FBI recruitment in the 1990s may have unwittingly contributed to the tragedy of 9/11. That the Harvard Princeton orchestra improved its performance by doing blind auditions. That we shouldn’t always build solutions based on the average, like the US Air Force did with their cockpit design in the 1950s.

Through these and many more fascinating and challenging stories Syed shows why diverse teams make better decisions and have higher levels of performance in most areas. Why cognitive diversity can significantly boost the collective intelligence of almost any team. 

He explores why we need to be so careful of our own echo chambers, where our beliefs become amplified and reinforced. They lead us to develop unknown blind spots that are responsible for us not being exposed to opposing perspectives. How can we understand people who don’t think like us if we don’t hear from them? The internet should give us a huge variety of opinions but, the algorithms used, only feed us the things we want to see. 

Because Derek Black attended a smaller university, he mixed with a wider spectrum of students than he would have at a much larger one. It’s a paradox but at larger universities it’s easier to find groups who agree with you and join them. His Twitter biography now refers to him as “an unexpected advocate for anti-racism”.

When the Harvard Princeton orchestra conducted (excuse the pun) auditions where they couldn’t see the applicants but relied solely on what they could hear, it made female musicians three times more likely to be employed. When so many US Air Force pilots complained about their cockpits, a deeper look at the data showed that, of the 4,000 pilots in the group, not one met the criteria for being average! 

Syed is clear that if we’re to be successful as leaders, we must free ourselves from our own/organisational blind spots and embrace critical thinking, however uncomfortable it may be. We must encourage and welcome critical dissent. The challenges of modern society demand that we find and nurture the potential in all our people and don’t just try to turn them all into a “Mini Me”.

Don’t read this book if you want yourself and your organisation/church to stay just as it is. Do read it if you’re prepared to be challenged and consider radical ideas.

Review by John Draper, National Partnerships Director

Matthew Syed is a best-selling author, broadcaster, Times columnist and Olympian. If you listen to Radio Five Live, you may have heard his podcasts “Flintoff, Savage and the Ping Pong Guy”. He’s the Ping Pong Guy, having been British Champion for many years.


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