Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking by Matthew Syed

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Harmonious thinking can be dangerous, by clones who are individually intelligent but collectively stupid. Harness the power of diversity and the rebel idea! Bring people together who think differently to advance the collective brain and solve the world’s wicked problems.


  • Alike the classic story ‘The Blind Men & The Elephant’ – a diversity of perspectives is needed to see the whole elephant – the bigger picture.
  • Harmony can be blindingly dangerous.
  • Intelligence can be collectively dumb.
  • Great minds think unalike.
  • It’s better to be social than smart.
  • Become an outsider.
  • The progress of humanity depends on diversity.


  • Everyone wants better. Better ideas. Better performance. Better productivity. Better innovation.  Better solutions. For complex tasks, cognitive diversity and rebel ideas lie at the heart of this.
  • To solve the world’s most challenging problems, hire a team based on diversity of their thinking rather than performance or expertise alone. Experts can be vulnerable to bias that undermine their capacity to make wise judgments, there is a need to work with a range of people who think differently not just accurately.
  • This is about cognitive diversity (thinking differently) rather than demographic diversity (gender, race, age, religion etc), although there is some overlap.
  • Problems are too complex for any one person to tackle alone. Groups that contain diverse views have a huge advantage. It is not a case of one person being right and another wrong – looking at a problem through different lenses can jog new insights, metaphors and solutions. Sometimes you need to look at a problem in new ways, with the eyes of an outsider.
  • Complex problems are often multi-layered and therefore require multiple insights and points of view.
  • The more diverse the perspectives, the wider the range of potentially viable solutions.
  • EXAMPLE: An experiment looked at the responses by American and Japanese people to the same video clips of underwater scenes. The Americans recalled high level details of the fish – a focus on objects. The Japanese instead focused on the context – the water, rocks and plants. It was as of the groups were seeing different scenes. The experiment revealed differences in thinking shaped by culture – America – a more individualistic society – revealed by their focus on objects. Japan – a more interdependent culture – revealed by their focus on context. Furthermore, combining these different frames of reference created a more comprehensive insight of the whole scene.
  • You need wise individuals (with knowledge relevant to the topic of focus) as well as diverse individuals – asking a group of laypeople to estimate the rise in ocean levels over the next decade won’t get you very far. However a diverse range of experts will overcome blind spots that arise in a group of experts with the same frame of reference.
  • For complex problems you need diversity. For simple performance-based tasks, diversity is a distraction. EXAMPLE for a relay team of 6 runners, you want 6 Usain Bolts– everyone one of them would be faster than anybody in any other team, so you want to hire based on best performance. Conversely, for an accurate economic forecast (a complex task given countless influencing factors – businesses, consumers, banks etc), hiring 6 clones of the most accurate forecaster in the world would not provide the most accurate forecast. A study indicates that a diverse group of 6 forecasters while individually less impressive, would be 15% more accurate. This is because the cloned economists would have the same way of looking at the world, the same frames of reference, the same blind-spots. They would all be looking at the same side of the elephant. No one economist has the whole truth. A group of diverse economists, able to see more of the whole elephant, collectively gets us closer to the truth.
  • Collective intelligence requires both ABILITY AND DIVERSITY.


  • A group of wise individuals can become an unwise board. The problem isn’t a single person, the problem emerges from the whole.
  • How homogeneity of perspective led to dismissing the threat of Osama bin Laden. “They could not believe that this tall Saudi with a beard, squatting around a camp-fire, could be a threat to the United States of America”. “How can a man in a cave out-communicate the world’s leading communications society?” To a homogeneous group of CIA analysts, lacking in cognitive diversity, bin Laden looked primitive and thus of no serious danger to a technological giant like the US. They simply could not see any benefit in allocating resources to pursue intelligence on someone they viewed as the ‘essence of backwardness’. Instead, someone more familiar with Islam could have perceived the same images in a different way. Bin Laden’s simple cloth and postures were not signs of primitiveness in terms of intellect or technology, but symbolic, evoking imagery of the Prophet – they magnified his potency to many Muslims. Warnings of danger were raised by many in the Muslim world but were invisible or dismissed by those unfamiliar with the faith – those CIA agents who had been hired as the brightest and the best (on the basis of performance rather than cognitive diversity).  The potency of his messages was visible only to those looking with the right lens. The dots depicted a pattern but required a diverse team to connect them. Different frames of reference, would have created a more comprehensive, nuanced and powerful synthesis. The CIA agents were individually perceptive but COLLECTIVELY BLIND.
  • Homogeneous groups share and reinforce their blind spots, through “mirroring”. Certainty becomes inversely correlated with accuracy – they are far more likely to be wrong but more confident about their (wrong) judgement.
  • Why harmony can be dangerous – working in homogeneous groups produces the warm glow of homophily it is more enjoyable to agree, parrot, and confirm– social harmony can delude groups into thinking they are honing in on wise policy when in fact they are compounding each other’s blinds spot.  We unconsciously enjoy being surrounded by people who share our perspectives – it is comforting and validating. It makes us feel individually intelligent as we become ever more collectively stupid.
  • Teams of rebels outperform teams of clones. Teams that are diverse in personal experiences tend to have richer, more nuanced understanding of their fellow human beings, and have a wider array of perspectives and fewer blind spots. Cognitive diversity is set to become a key source of competitive advantage.
  • Wise groups of rebels are not clone like, they do not parrot the same view, they have perspectives that challenge, augment, diverge and cross-pollinate. The individuals are no smarter than those in homogeneous groups, but the group possesses vastly higher levels of collective intelligence. Collective intelligence emerges from the differences between the individuals. Just as a car only works due to the interaction of its parts, and the intelligence of the brain derives from the interaction of its parts, diverse teams exceed the capability of (albeit smart) individuals through the interaction of its members.
  • A substantial proportion of the biggest blunders by governments across political persuasions is due to the lack of social diversity in political elites. Government officials project their lifestyles onto the masses and devise policies on this basis. Example: For decades in northern Sweden, snow clearing policy prioritised the clearing of major roads ending with pedestrian walkways. However, statistics previously overlooked, indicated that hospital admissions for injuries caused by slippery icy conditions were three times higher for pedestrians than motorists. This led to a reversal of the previous policy, to prioritise pedestrian routes for snow clearing above roads. The previous policy had been determined by officials who were mainly men; the change came about when fresh analysis revealed a difference in travel patterns between men and women: with men tending to drive, and women more likely to take public transport or walk. The male officials who had originally devised the schedule had designed it around their needs – they hadn’t deliberately set out to exclude women – they just didn’t think about them.
  • Diversity isn’t just about market research or focus groups, it’s about the questions that are asked in the first place, the data that is used to determine a course of action, policy or problem solution. The deepest problem of homogeneity 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.


  • There is a need not only to recruit diversely, but to create structures and processes that sustain that diversity of thinking, that preserve the survival of the rebel.
  • E.g. if you run a software company, you do not want to simply recruit graduates from the top ranked university for software – they will all have the same frame of reference, having studied under the same professors, absorbed similar insights, ideas, and models. By selecting graduates in a meritocratic way, based on performance alone, organisations find themselves gravitating towards clone-like teams.
  • Furthermore, a company can hire great people from all sorts of backgrounds, brimming with diverse ideas, only to see them gradually re-moulded to fit the dominant culture of the organisation, losing their unique insights and voices, echoing the company’s accepted way of thinking.


  • Demographic diversity often overlaps with cognitive diversity but is distinct.
  • Demographic diversity is useful when needing to gain a collective perspective encompassing of broad range of groups. E.g. research indicated that increases in racial diversity offered no efficiency gains for firms producing aircraft parts and machinery because the experience of being from a particular race did not reveal any novel insights into the design of engine parts.
  • Cognitive diversity instead points to differences in ways of thinking – two people could be demographically diverse in terms of race but if they attended the same university, studied under the same professor, they would still remain clone-like in their thinking. Two racially similar economists would be clone-like demographically, but could be cognitively diverse -one a Monetarist, the other a Keynesian – holding diverse frames of references when thinking about the economy.



  • The first step for any group seeking to tackle a tough challenge is not the problem itself but the group’s dimensions – the question to ask is “Where are the gaps in our collective understanding, in our cognitive diversity?”
  • Filling these gaps produce team deliberations that lead to enlightment rather than mirroring (through cognitive similarity).


  • Prestige hierarchies are the solution. Dominance hierarchies lead to cloning and the failure to speak up.
  • High status leaders fail more often due to the unconditional support they get – subordinates have a need to please the boss, often unconsciously, parroting their thoughts and behaviours, and thereby eliminating diverse insights. The dominance dynamic leads to the social equivalent of the cloning effect. Diverse perspectives exist but are not expressed. The cognitive capacity of the team effectively collapses to the parameters of one brain (that of the dominant leader). A study found that projects by junior managers were more likely to succeed than those led by more senior managers.
  • Research found that a significant number of crashes occurred due to co-pilots failing to speak up. At the time, aviation was characterised by a dominance hierarchy – crew members calling pilots “Sir”, deferring to their judgments and simply acting on their commands.
  • EXAMPLE: The 1996 Mount Everest Disaster is explained by dominance hierarchy, not by the failure of individual actions, despite the finger pointing that followed the disaster. Members of the climbing group failed to speak up to provide critical insights that could have averted disaster, due to the dominance of the head guide, Robert Hall. For the best of reasons, through his deep experience of Mount Everest, and knowledge of the dangers involved, he asserted he would not tolerate any dissension whilst on the mountain, but in doing so, he inadvertently created a dominance dynamic, critically limiting his perspective when taking key decisions. The casting of himself and other guides as the invincible leaders, the dominant figureheads, silenced key input from clients and others on a repeated basis, thus reducing the collective wisdom of the team when life and death decisions were taken, leading to the deaths of 8 climbers.  One client – who as a commercial pilot had long experience of interpreting cloud information – noticed a cloud formation indicating a nasty storm brewing but did not speak up. Why? Another client failed to challenge one of the guides who mistakenly concluded there was no oxygen left in a pile of bottles. Why? Clients had been instructed to obey rather than contribute to decisions. It wasn’t that they didn’t care enough – humans are acutely sensitive to hierarchy, even when the stakes are high – self silencing occurs unconsciously. By the time the storm hit, the accumulation of misjudgments compounded to form a chain of tragedy.
  • A study has shown that teams with more dominant hierarchies are significantly more likely to die in high altitude mountaineering expeditions. Top down decision-making processes mean people are less likely to speak up about changing conditions or impending problems – all conditions calling for a change in plan. It seems people are ingrained to preserve social order at the expense of their own lives.


  • Communication is dysfunctional at most meetings. Group processes by and large conspire to suppress the very diversity of viewpoints that they seek.
  • Status rather than contributions rule the discourse (the dominance dynamic at play). When one or two people dominate, it suppresses the insights of others in the team, particularly introverts. This is even worse if the dominant person is the leader as people parrot back their opinions. People fail to share crucial information, leaning towards the answers of the dominant person, not wanting to appear rude or disruptive. Rebel ideas that exist in the group are not expressed. Diversity of thought vanishes.
  • Lack of diverse input leads to disastrous decisions because the team, through the cloning effect, compound each other’s errors and collectively become increasingly confident about objectively terrible judgments.
  • How to provide a safe space for all voices and reduce the dominance dynamic? Create a meritocracy of ideas! Get everyone to write down their ideas anonymously (which separates ideas from a person’s status), all ideas are shared and voted on by the group. This has been found to generate twice the volume of ideas and higher quality ideas than spoken idea sharing.
  • Another tool – everyone attending a meeting provides a short written summary of their views, which are randomly distributed to participants and read out, again protecting cognitive diversity from the dangers of dominance.


  • Prestige hierachy v dominance hierarchy – there is a time for both, wise leaders pivot between the two.
  • Dominance hierachy is effective when decisions need to be made and implemented – for executing a plan. However, when generating and evaluating ideas, seeking innovation, deciding on a new strategy, and forecasting the future, prestige hierarchy is best – you need to hear diverse perspectives.
  • People need to feel safe to speak up, free from retribution from a leader who interprets rebel and diverse ideas as a threat. Prestige-oriented leaders boost collective intelligence, gaining their influence and respect through qualities like generosity, empathy, listening, cooperation, authentic persuasion and self-deprecation. In contrast, dominance-oriented leaders gain status through intimidation, aggression, manipulation, reward and punishment, narcissism, politicking and internal competition. Prestige-oriented leaders gain respect that is volunteered by those they lead, it is not demanded, their actions intend to liberate rather than intimidate.
  • Leaders often worry that inviting other views – particularly disagreeing ones – might undermine their authority. They are wrong, people feel more committed when given an opportunity to make a contribution – it strengthens motivation, boosts creativity and increases the potential of the whole organisation.
  •  “The greatest tragedy of mankind comes from the inability of people to have thoughtful disagreement to find out what’s true” (Adam Grant).
  • The balance of dominance and diversity – organisations do indeed need leaders – when Google installed a flat structure without managers it failed due to lack of hierarchy leading to chaos and confusion. However, leaders need to shift the balance of hierarchy to allow for diversity (for greater perspective and innovation) as well as dominance (for effective implementation).
  • The dangerous paradox of dominance-oriented leadership and loss of control – people find themselves favouring a dominant leader when there is a collective loss of control and security (e.g. economic insecurity), seeking an authoritarian personality to provide reassurance, with disastrous consequences. When the environment is complex and uncertain, this is precisely the time when a diversity of perspectives is needed to maximise collective intelligence. When the economy is going well, people favour non-hierarchical churches, when jobs are insecure and they lack control over their lives, they convert to hierarchical churches, to compensate for feelings of insecurity. This is a dangerous paradox because the dominance hierarchy which leads to one dominant brain, is not diverse enough to solve a complex problem.


  • Innovation can be incremental, through continual modification of existing ideas, or recombinant – fusing together conventional ideas from previously unrelated fields e.g. a wheel and a suitcase = the wheeled suitcase, psychology and economics = behavioural psychology.
  • Recombinant innovation has become the dominant force of change (e.g. vast majority of patents span traditional boundaries) which requires diversity and rebellion. The rebel combination of diverse fields across the problem space, the cross fertilisation of ideas (“ideas having sex”) and opening up of new possibilities – only flourishes in diversity.


  • Immigrants feature highly in innovative settings. More than ½ of US Nobel Prize winners over the last few decades were born abroad Studies show they are twice more likely to become entrepreneurs. 57% of the top 35 Fortune 500 companies were founded/co-founded by immigrants/children of immigrants. Immigrants make disproportionate contributions to technology, patent production and academic science.
  • Why? The outsider mindset is a powerful asset when it comes to innovation – those deeply familiar with the status quo find it psychologically more difficult to deconstruct or disrupt it, their frame of reference so bound up in a fixed worldview, unable to see the new, unable to evolve.
  • Immigrants on the other hand, having experience of different culture(s), and alternative ways of doing things, have an upper hand in seeing where things could be different, reformed, amended, or re-combined. Having experience of more than one culture, enables them greater scope to bring ideas together – acting as bridges – the recombinant perspective. Their outsider mindset offers them the psychological space to question conventions and assumptions of the status quo and come up with rebel ideas.
  • A study found that teams with an outsider perform better than homogeneous groups and individuals working alone, indicating an advantage through differing perspectives stimulating widened debates, scope of ideas and solutions.
  • To become a visionary, take the perspective of an outsider in order to see the things that are taken for granted by insiders. You can only know who you are by seeing your contrast. Stepping outside our own walls provides us with a new way of seeing the same info, a new perspective, generating new possibilities and opportunities.
  • Charles Darwin alternated between research in zoology, psychology, botany and geology enhancing his creative potential because it gave him the outsider mindset – the chance to see his subject from the outside and fuse ideas from diverse branches of science.
  • How do you adopt an outsider mindset and see with new eyes? Use assumption reversal.
  • EXAMPLE: Suppose you are setting up a new taxi company – your first assumption might be that taxi companies own their own cars. Instead, consider its reversal – taxi companies own no cars.  20 years ago this may have sounded like a radical idea. Today, the largest taxi company that has ever existed doesn’t own cars – Uber.
  • EXAMPLE – Suppose you are a doctor with a patient with a malignant stomach tumor. A ray exists that can be used to destroy the tumour at a sufficiently high intensity, however the healthy tissue it passes through will also be destroyed. What procedure can be done that destroys the tumour but not healthy tissues? Most people say there is no solution. However, on reading the following seemingly unrelated story most people find a way to save the patient. Many roads led to a fortress situated in the middle of the country, surrounded by farms and villages. A rebel general vowed to capture the fortress but learned that mines had been planted on each road. Small bodies of men could pass over the mines safely, but any large force would detonate them. Do you see the solution now? The general divided his army into small groups down each road, arriving at the fortress at the same time, and captured the fortress. In a similar way, the solution to the tumor problem is solved by setting multiple ray guns around the patient delivering 10% of the radiation with each gun, destroying the tumour without harming the healthy tissue. This is an artificial example but shows how different perspectives may contribute to solving a challenging problem innovatively. When faced with a difficult medical problem, the temptation is to recruit more and more doctors, but these experts have similar backgrounds and training, and consequently similar frames of reference and blind spots. It may be more effective to employ someone with a military background instead, to look at the problem with a new set of eyes, revealing new insights and solutions.


  • For innovation, it is better to be social then smart, AND you are smart because you are social.
  • Geniuses can have originality but without sociality, their ideas die with them.
  • Innovation is more than about individual creativity – it is about connections. Places and societies that facilitate idea sharing tend to be more productive and innovative – when ideas are shared, they multiply. Innovation is about the fusing of existing ideas to produce something that breaks new ground – recombinant innovation – which only happens in interaction between individuals and the networks they inhabit. Geniuses are smarter than networks, but unsocial geniuses are less likely to be in possession of innovative ideas for this reason.
  • Furthermore, the creativity of an individual brain is linked to the diversity of the network it is plugged into –  the great genius, thinker, inventor is smart because he is social – this person’s brain being the product of the collective brains of which they have been around. In the same way reading across a breadth of books and subjects exposes you to a diversity of perspective and possibility for innovation through the fusing of diverse ideas.
  • How do you encourage the spreading of ideas?  Design it into office spaces, e.g. Steve Jobs in planning the Pixar building, deliberately designed it with one set of toilets in the atrium, forcing the mingling of people from across different functions, niches and silos, leading to a ‘symphony of chance encounters’.
  • How do you meet people from a different thought perspective than you? Seek a smaller community of people to engage with. For example, a larger university, although having greater diversity due to its size, paradoxically affords greater possibility of finding people much like yourself to socialise with.  In a smaller university, diversity is less and with fewer available choices, you are more likely to have to mingle with people from comparatively different backgrounds and perspectives.


  • Justice and the Collective Brain: the success of humanity is dependent on the innovation that emerges from the collective brain, not the individual.
  • When a group of people are denied access to the network of ideas, the whole world suffers. For centuries, women were barred from higher education and professional training, not only unjust for women, but also dramatically diminishing the creativity of men and the collective brain, by ignoring diverse perspectives, information and discoveries from half of the population.
  • How to be just and increase diversity? Limit unconscious bias to create a true meritocracy of talent, by using blind selection e.g. blind auditions, blinding CVs (remove names and other demographic info when recruiting). When orchestras, previously dominated by men, held blind auditions, women’s chances of advancing through to the final selection rounds increased by 300%.
  • Racial and gender diversity: an analsyis of companies found that in Germany, UK and US, return on equity was significantly higher (66% and 100% for US alone) for firms with executives in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity compared to those in the bottom quartile. Another study with a focus on legal, health and financial services found that an increase in racial diversity by 1 standard deviation increased productivity by more than 25%.
  • Note that optimising demographic diversity does not necessarily equate to optimising cognitive diversity. To encourage a greater breadth of perspective and enhance collective wisdom, you can for example, introduce shadow boards, e.g. a shadow board of young people running in parallel who provide a different perspective to those on the main board.


  • Diversity v Standardisation: when an average is used well, it harnesses the insights from multiple (diverse) people. When used badly, it imposes a solution for multiple (diverse) people.
  • Average used well – taking the average forecast of 6 cognitively diverse economists was found to be significantly more accurate than the forecast of the top economist.
  • Average used badly – when US Air Force Cockpits were redesigned to embrace the diversity of individuals (e.g. adjustable seat height, distance of joystick) incidents plummeted. Previously, cockpits had been designed around the “standard body size” based on mean averages of different body dimensions. However, the combination of these averages resulted in dimensions for a person who was far from “average”.
  • Allowing diversity (i.e. personalisation) in the workplace increases productivity. Workers who are able to deviate from the standard to achieve tasks in their own way are much happier and more productive in their jobs. Productivity was found to be 30% higher where people were given the autonomy to design and configure their workspaces to suit their own tastes and personalities.
  • Standardised dietary advice will always be flawed because it only takes into account the food, not the person eating it. In a study, eating ice cream led to a healthy blood sugar levels for some people, whilst sushi had the opposite effect.
  • In education, the 2015 PISA tables showed that adaptive instruction was the second most powerful predictor of high levels of educational outcome, rating above discipline, classroom size and more. An approach embracing diversity of learning style and pace, as opposed to the standardised outlook which treats schools like factories in which children are the raw products to be shaped and fashioned into products that meet the various demands of life.


  • It’s imperative to place human beings in contact with people dissimilar to themselves, with modes of thought unlike their own. Diversity isn’t some optional add on – it is the basic ingredient of collective intelligence.
  • Cultures that encourage new ideas, foster dissent and have strong networks spurring the growth of rebel ideas, innovate faster than those held back by cultures of intellectual conformity.
  • Cognitive diversity is the route to solving the world’s most complex problems, humanity’s re-invention and growth is dependent on it.

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