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#WavellReviews “Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking” by Matthew Syed

Available here from John Murray Publishers

For a book about diversity of thought, it’s not a bad start to have an author whose background is as fascinatingly diverse as Matthew Syed.  Born to a Pakistani immigrant father and a North Walian mother, Syed’s career has been varied and his achievements impressive.  For a time, he was England’s number 1 ranked table tennis player.  He has been a columnist for the Times, has advised the England football team and, rather against the tide for a right leaning broadsheet journo, he even had a brief foray into politics as a Labour parliamentary candidate.  What Syed achieves in this lucid read, however, has potential impact far beyond the areas his career has touched on so far.  ‘Rebel Ideas’ provides a framework for a highly compelling argument in favour of not only cognitive diversity, but more broadly for organisational diversity.

Syed takes the reader on an important journey towards understanding diversity and its importance, beginning at 9/11.  More precisely his start point is with the failings by the US intelligence community, principally the CIA, which he argues were partly born of the CIA’s chronic lack of diversity within the workforce.  For years the US’s premier intelligence agency had recruited and promoted a demographic and an intellectual profile with which it felt comfortable.  Outstandingly bright individuals from the most prestigious and exacting academic institutions filled the ranks of the CIA and shaped thinking about the threat from America’s adversaries.  Syed seeks to demonstrate that institutional organisations like the CIA tend to embed a self-fulfilling prophecy within their recruitment processes and their career management models.  Staff who look, think and sound the same, put simply, get on and do well.  So why should the institution change how and where it recruits.  Syed describes the corrosive and self-defeating effect of that approach; an approach which generates homophily over diversity.  We are all instinctively more comfortable around people who feel familiar and safe, but this is a bubble which can burst.  What the CIA was forced to confront and acknowledge after the catastrophic intelligence failures of 9/11 is that familiar is sometimes far from safe.  The recruitment net needs to be cast as wide as possible if organisations who seek to excel can even begin to understand where the boundaries of excellence rest.  Diversity of thought must be grounded in diversity of people.

Syed then takes us back, closer to home, to the innovative and radical recruitment of unorthodox brains during WW2, to staff the highly secretive code breaking effort within Bletchley Park.  The ‘team’ at Bletchley Park was diverse across multiple dimensions from gender and sexual orientation, through published authors, philosophers and a humble clerk called Stanley Sedgewick, who was recruited for his talent in solving crosswords.  The aggregation of all this talent was not just mathematical and analytical genius, but an ability to think laterally and understand people.  What the CIA learned after 9/11, but the British General Staff anticipated in slightly better time, is that clones may well generate ideas that resonate, but they won’t necessarily generate the ideas that solve.  Syed’s chain of logic, drawn through a series of historical and epoch changing events is as sound as it is easy to grasp.

Syed likes to root his own thinking in real life and real-world experience, and I found the appeal of this read partly in literary marriage of the theoretical with the practical.  He always seeks to ground his very appealing assertions in the evidence of real achievements.  Accounts of innovative business thinking and of ‘recombination’ (the fusing of ideas) have produced some of our most familiar everyday items.  Who would have thought that the wheeled suitcase had such a difficult start in life!  A book such as this is not supposed to be a ‘page turner’, or an easy read, but it wasn’t hard to keep going back for more.  On a more profound level Syed deals skilfully with the issue of racial diversity; the skill resting with how he frames this section within an account of how diverse thinking can emerge from the most entrenched and polarised backgrounds.  The description of a white supremacist in the US, evolving into a major advocate for racial equality and justice, is one of the most important achievements of this book, reminding us that ‘echo chambers’ form all around us, every day.  These intellectual silos might not always be on such an intense level as within the white supremacist movement, but they are often pervasive enough that they shut us off to ideas which might just change our lives, or improve the lives of others.

Concluding this work and returning to the opening theme in his book, Syed traces the gradual progression and (relative) diversification within the CIA, since 9/11, through the career of an African American Muslim.  Recruited initially because of his background in economics, the lessons of 9/11 put Yaya Fanousie to much better use.  He went on to identify and help target and capture one of the most dangerous jihadist influencers threatening the US.  The moral of that story?  Diversity enriches and improves an organisation and in a national security context might even save lives.

As I turned the final pages, I was left reflecting, not for the first time, on the authenticity of the cognitive diversity within organisations I have worked for, as a soldier, law enforcement officer and diplomat.  In 4 years of service at our own Army Officer Selection Board at Westbury, only 3% of the candidates I saw pass the selection board for training at Sandhurst were of colour.  Not a single assessor in those 4 years – not one – came from a visible ethnic minority.  Have we gone far enough to be diverse and exploit diversity?  Judged by the standards of ‘Rebel Ideas’, it’s food for thought.

Syed’s thesis in ‘Rebel Ideas’ is that to be different, like Fanousie, and to think differently, like the humble clerk come code breaker Stanley Sedgewick, is to be the ‘rebel’ and the catalyst for something better.  And this should have real resonance for any organisation such as the British Army, which instinctively breeds and often promotes unity of thought as well as action.  Attend any meeting within a military HQ, and can it honestly be said that the smartest ideas are always being presented?  Or are meetings still hampered by the constraints of hierarchy and military deference?  If the British Army is as serious about cognitive diversity as it claims to be, it almost certainly needs to delve much deeper into what it understands by diversity and diversity of thought.  Syed argues that organisations need to dive in and dare to be rebel institutions, at every level and with ‘Rebel Ideas’.  How a post-IR British military might apply such a progressive and radical model belongs to a piece more substantial than a book review, but it would surely be a discussion worth having.

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Séan is a career army officer, with experience on several operational tours and across a range of regimental and staff appointments.  He is currently serving as a staff officer within a headquarters.



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