Book review: Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking

Lack of diversity leads to homogeneous thinking and missed opportunities. We need to have some uncomfortable conversations in schools, says Nick Dennis

Nick Dennis

Rebel Ideas, by Matthew Syed

Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking

Author: Matthew Syed
Publisher: John Murray 
Details: 320pp; £20
ISBN: 978-1473613911

Combining differing views and experiences leads to better understanding and decision-making. Yet organisations are resolutely monocultural in their composition, and not very cosmopolitan in their thinking. 

Despite the implicit understanding that the world is incorrigibly plural, diversity of thought and experience is often considered to be a “nice to have”, after the real work is done and standards are maintained. 

Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking challenges this view by starting with the events of 9/11.

How did the world’s foremost security service, the CIA, with all its resources and technology, fail to detect the attack? 

The danger of homogeneity

For Syed, a major factor that has been missed in the debate about whether the CIA missed important information or did all that it could have done has been the homogenous composition of the organisation. 

Staffed by white Protestant middle-class analysts, often from the best schools and universities, they could not understand the intentions or plans behind 9/11 because they did not possess the conceptual framework or background knowledge even to begin to perceive the level of the threat.

This collective blind spot, created by a culture that argued that you could not sacrifice the existing excellence of agents for a “politically correct” diverse workforce, meant that a more comprehensive and powerful analysis of the world was not possible. 

There were very few Muslim analysts on the CIA staff and, even if the analysis they provided had been taken seriously, intelligence gathering on the ground would have been hampered because there was “a lack of diversity in the field”, too. 

Diversity is not a “nice to have”. It should be a strategic priority from the start.

Disparate stories

Syed excels in drawing together disparate stories and examples, and weaving them together into an interesting narrative. Silicon Valley, academic research and other “smart thinking” books are used to make an easily digestible case for diversity, or what he calls “rebel thinking”. 

For Syed, homophily – the tendency to bond with and recruit people with similar backgrounds and experiences – limits the ability to see a problem from a variety of angles. 

These “clones” know similar things and share similar perspectives, and this can have catastrophic outcomes.

The reductive power of homogenous teams is laid bare when he gives the example of the formulation of the Poll Tax that was introduced. 

The team that worked on the policy worked well together, enjoyed their task and produced something they were proud of. They were also wealthy individuals who attended the same schools, gained places at the same universities, and enjoyed the same pursuits. 

Such a group might be ideal for planning a dinner party but, in the world of politics, where “diversity of experience is so critical to informing policy choices”, they were lacking. 

This homogeneity of experience, wealth and lack of understanding of how other parts of the population lived led to a notable comment from one of the architects, the secretary of state for the environment, Nicholas Ridley. When asked whether elderly couples could afford to pay the Poll Tax, he replied: “Well, they could always sell a picture.” Homophily amplifies poor reasoning. 

Rebel thinking

Rebel thinking is the ability to see problems from a variety of viewpoints and cover as many experiences as possible. Syed uses a rectangle to represent the “problem space” that organisations face in any decision.

Within a team of intelligent people with similar backgrounds and experiences, only a small corner of the rectangle is filled. They essentially become “clones”.

An intelligent team, with diversity at the heart, covers more areas of the “problem space”. These rebel thinkers allow for better decisions and understanding. 

This diagram is the best thing to come from the book. It will be used in seminars, strategy away days and curriculum-planning meetings across the country for years, because of its simplicity and because it plugs into our fascination with dual coding.

A lot to feel uncomfortable about

I enjoyed the book, because I love the stories Syed marshals and the easy phrasing of his prose.

I am sure that governing bodies, leadership teams and CEOs around the country will absorb the book because it makes them feel knowledgeable around the issue of diversity without feeling too uncomfortable.

This is the book’s strength and also a source of anxiety in relation to schools, as there is a lot to feel uncomfortable about. 

Examine governing bodies and senior leadership teams on any school website, and there is generally a trend in terms of homogeneity regarding educational, social and economic background, even when serving incredibly diverse communities. 

Solutions to pressing problems such as access in the independent sector have relied on existing bursary and scholarship models. This is because not many have considered – or have the background knowledge or experience of running – social-change programmes focusing on infant care and parental support before the age of three. These lead to superior outcomes, regardless of the school children attend after the age of four.

Or contemplate how the ill-considered cocktail of knife crime, ethnicity and behaviour in schools is discussed, and how little reflection there is of careful multi-agency work in Scotland.

If we guardians of the future, through our roles as educators, cannot grasp this matter within our institutions and teams, who will? 

Paraphrasing Pope Francis’ views on charity, I would distrust any talk of diversity from an education institution, multi-academy trust CEO, headteacher, school governing body or consultant that outlines change that costs nothing and does not hurt.

I certainly welcome Syed’s contribution to the work on making organisations more diverse. And I hope that its impact is more than a simple diagram, used in Inset meetings to mask the uncomfortable reality and the hard work needed to make a genuine change.

Nick Dennis is director of studies at St Francis’ College, Hertfordshire. He tweets @nickdennis 

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