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Rebel Ideas

The Power of Diverse Thinking

By Matthew Syed
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed

Rebel Ideas (2019) explains why cognitive diversity is the fundamental ingredient for finding solutions to difficult problems, and how we can harness it to create positive change at work, in politics and when tackling global issues.

Key idea 1 of 8

Working with people who are similar to us undermines our potential for success.

Imagine you’re a CEO recruiting a new financial manager. The final two candidates are equal in merit and experience. One shares your views on company policy, while the other has voiced some concerns about your five-year plan. Who should you hire?

We tend to surround ourselves with people we identify with, in appearance, beliefs and perspective. This subconscious habit, known as homophily, occurs because it’s validating to have our own ideas reflected back to us by the people around us, whether it’s friends, family or colleagues. But the truth is that homophily significantly inhibits the success of a team.

The problem with homophily is that it creates collective blindness. Even if a team is made up of highly intelligent individuals, if they all think in similar ways, they won’t be aware of what they’re not seeing. These blind-spots often aren’t the result of failure on any one individual’s part. They can arise from incidental factors we can’t control, like the culture we grew up in or who our university professors were.

We can see the devastating consequences of homophily if we look at the CIA’s past recruitment patterns. Prior to 9/11, the CIA had a long tradition of predominantly hiring officers who mirrored existing staff: white males from the middle and upper classes who had studied liberal arts at college.

This homogeneity meant that, despite having thousands of personnel with a formidable budget at their disposal, CIA agents suffered from collective blindness. They overlooked important clues about Osama bin Laden’s growing influence. Their lack of understanding about Islam, for instance, led them to dismiss him as primitive because he lived in a cave, had a long beard and wore a simple cloth robe. They failed to recognize that he had deliberately modeled himself on the Prophet, and that a cave is a deeply religious symbol to Muslims. Their blindness meant they underestimated the threat bin Laden posed, contributing to the horrifying tragedies that took place in America on September 11, 2001.

So, how do we overcome homophily if it’s part of human nature? In the blinks that follow, you’ll discover how to step beyond collective blindness by embracing the rebel within.

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