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Book Review: Matthew Syed's "Rebel Ideas"

David's verdict 6/10 | Could be better

Available on Amazon: Hardcover £13.58


Who should read rebel ideas by Matthew Syed?

The book is a good read for anyone who is not familiar with the difference between linear and non-linear (complex) environments. Leaders and managers will gain an appreciation for the diversity of thought needed to make sense of, swarm and adapt teams to dynamic decision-making and problem-solving situations.

Book Review Matthew Syed's Rebel Ideas
David's Book Review | Matthew Syed's Rebel Ideas

Overview of Rebel Ideas

Matthew Syed applies the tried-and-tested approach of hooking the reader in through stories used to convey a learning moment. The problem is that so many authors are using this mechanism that the narrative can feel contrived and the lesson forced.

Matthew Syed Rebel Ideas Review
Matthew Syed Rebel Ideas

Syed's Black Box Thinking was such a hit that I had high expectations for Rebel Ideas. The book contains seven chapters and at its heart is a simple message: in complex environments, avoid groupthink and seek out (swarm) variety of thought.

Before you spend your money, check out Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety and you will gain a good understanding of the book's core premise. I might be over-simplifying the message, but, as you'll see from my review, I think Syed's approach is overly formulaic and misses the opportunity to address the learning needs of the reader.

Another of Syed's key messages is is the need to swarm collective intelligence - the need to form diverse teams with appropriate knowledge, skills and experience to meet the objective. However, as you'll see from my review, a critical opportunity to improve the reader's depth of understanding was missed here.


Example - Chapter 2: Rebels Versus Clones

Syed opens with a story about his experiences on the English Football Association's Technical Advisory Board. The group was governed by an objective to improve the performance of the England men's football team, and Syed's focus is on the diversity/variety of knowledge, skills experiences within the group: 

  • a British Asian founder of high-tech start-ups

  • an administrator from Olympic sports

  • an educationalista former England rugby coach

  • an Olympic cycling coach

  • the first female college commander of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

Syed then dedicates a few pages to the benefits of the diversity of opinion and the need to seek a science of diversity and "the contours of collective intelligence" (p. 45). He then moves on to introduce the concept of the Intelligent Individual and the danger of over-familiarity or close ties, which can result in forming teams of what Syed refers to as Intelligent Clones.

Syed moves to introduce Homophily in the context of the UK's Poll Tax, a political disaster for the UK Conservative Party created by people operating in a bubble formed of tightly coupled relationships:

"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'." (p. 53)

Syed then circles back to his core theme for the need for variety in teams by introducing the Intelligent Team (a team of rebels). A few pages of commentary ensue, discussing the need for bringing the right people together to create the big picture. 

However, critically, Syed misses an opportunity to explore the need for dynamic teams where the 'swarm' needs to evolve (people come and go) as the environment emerges. Complexity means that you will never see the whole picture, but, as your team probes the environment, more of the variables, connections and their interactivity become apparent. As such, the formation of the team will evolve to meet the needs of the environment (i.e. the variety in the team will need to change to meet the emerging variety in the environment).

The chapter progresses to introduce 'A diverse but collectively unintelligent team" (Rebels without a cause), which reinforces my point. Syed returns to his experience with the English Football Association's Technical Advisory Board:

"...[if the memebers] had been invited to advise not on English football, but on, say, DNA sequencing. The team would have had diverse information, but it would scarcely have impinged on the problem space. Diversity contributes to collective intelligence, then, but only when it is relevant" (p. 66)

Syed then discusses the futility of focus groups as a research method, where such groups lack validity due to sample size and the bias of the facilitator. Such discussion is where I get a bit frustrated. Yes, Syed is correct, but he fails to amplify the impact of his message by guiding the reader to methods for overcoming such challenges. Instead, Syed gives the reader just enough to feel smart in being able to state the problem.


3 things I love about Matthew Syed's Rebel Ideas

  • It brings focus to complexity, which many business schools miss when developing managers and leaders.

  • The focus on seeking out on diversity to overcome variety in the environment

  • The relevance of the topics to The Fourth Industrial Revolution


What could be better about Matthew Syed's Rebel ideas?

Fables are a fantastic way of conveying lessons to be learned. However, the assumption is that everyone is self-directed enough to then look for the next steps to make an impact within their personal/work communities.  See my review of Amy Brann's Make Your Brain Work for an insight into a more learner-centric storytelling approach.

I would like to see an approach that stimulates depth, completeness and security of learning where micro-experiments are introduced for the reader to try. I would also like to see an explanation of the next steps in the learning process, where authors speak to the motivation, relevancy and competency of the reader. Syed, for me, misses this opportunity which results in a stunted growth experience and one where the reader is often left thinking, so what?

In summary, Syed's Rebel Ideas is an easy read, but, given the number of books discussing leadership and management in complexity, I only recommend it for those who have not been introduced to the concepts before.


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