Last week, I made the long journey from Bengaluru to Florida, US and back. The advantage of spending 20 hours one way in the air with limited connectivity to the world, is that you get a lot of “Me” time. Time to catch up on sleep, reading and movies. I used this time to catch up on my reading.

These days, when everyone wants to share their learnings and has taken to writing (including me with my blogs), new books and titles are dime a dozen. Often the books have a powerful concept, but after the first chapter, the book gets repetitive. For someone who never likes to leave a book unread, I have reached a stage where I do stop reading books midway when the message in the book gets repetitive. Thankful to the creators of Blinkist – the app that provides a short audio summary of books. It is perfect listen-in during office commutes and a great way to catch up on books that you cannot finish reading. In such a crowded book space, I was riveted by the book Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking by Mathew Syed.

In today’s changing times, individual brilliance is no longer is sufficient, it is the collective intelligence of high-performance teams that drives innovation and thereby growth and change. The book touches upon on pitfalls to watch out for while harnessing ideas and offers great inputs for problem solving and creativity. Sharing my key takeaways from the topic in this blog.

Diversity is topic du jour everywhere and is mainly focused on demographic and gender diversity. I came across the term cognitive diversity for the first time via this book. Cognitive diversity in teams is important as it brings together different perspectives or frames of reference, providing you a complete picture of the problem. It is comforting to be surrounded by people like you, but homogeneity narrows one’s perspective and as a team you will have blind spots which will prevent you from finding a holistic solution. Collective intelligence hinges upon the expression of diverse perspectives and insights i.e. rebel ideas.

The author touched upon on constructive dissent. Humans are inherently hierarchical, and hierarchies can thwart effective communication. Managers and leaders should encourage ideas from the entire team and not take it as a threat to their dominance. In evolutionary history, tribes with dominant leaders tended to fare best. But in today’s world leaders need to be more of coaches or facilitators and draw out ideas from the team. Brainwriting is a technique that can used for the harnessing ideas. Like brainstorming, this is a way of generating creative ideas, but instead of stating out the ideas aloud, team members are asked to write the ideas in detail. The ideas are then posted on the wall for rest of team to vote on. Nobody is allowed to identify themselves with their written contributions. By anonymising the contributions, the status of person who came up with the idea is separated from the idea. Brainwriting ensures that all ideas are given their due and the best ones get the go ahead.

Recombinant innovation is another term I learnt from the book. Innovation is often distinguished as two types – incremental and recombinant innovation. Incremental innovation involves continuous cycle of experiments/prototypes that keep improving the product. Recombinant innovation involves, taking two ideas from different fields previously unrelated and fuse them together. Recombination is often dramatic, because it bridges between domains or breaks down silos altogether, opening up new seams of possibility.

The book also warns to watch out for Echo Chambers. The internet has become characterised by a new species of homogeneous in-group, linked not by the logic of nomadic tribe, but by ideological fine-tuning – Echo chambers.In many cases it is nothing to worry e.g. groups focused on fashion or quilting or hobbies. But when one is seeking to become informed on complex subjects such as politics or economics, echo chambers are inherently distorting. Those in the chamber rely on the sentiments and information in the group, closing themselves to outside input and ending up living in a bubble or an imagined reality, which often finds them polarized from other groups/views.

An interesting fallacy in today’s time is standardization. In anything we do, once we have mastered it, we standardize things e.g. best practices for operations, a standardized way for dealing with patients in a hospital, our educational system is standardized too. However, if status quo is not challenged, there will be no progress so we should look at moving Beyond Average all the time. A best practice is a best practice, till a better way is found of doing the work.

Dismantling unconscious bias is the need of the hour to create a fairer system but also the first step in creating a more collective intelligent society.

Shadow boards is another way cutting edge companies are harnessing diversity These consist of young people who advice executives on key decisions and strategic, thus lifting the conceptual blinkers that can attach to age.

Successful collaboration requires a giving attitude. If one shares information and ideas freely, one gains the opportunity to receive. Studies have shown that givers have been more successful than takers.

The book is interspersed with real life incidents like the collective intelligence failure of the 9/11 attacks, the Everest expedition tragedy and why diets work for some and don’t work all all – to name a few. The stories drive home the various concepts expounded by Syed in the book.

As Mathew Syed says in the book – “Our species is the most formidable on the planet not because we are individually formidable but because we are collectively diverse. By bringing different insights together, by connecting within and across generations, by recombining rebel ideas, we have created innovations of a quite breath-taking kind. It is our sociality that drove our smartness, not the other way around. Diversity is not merely the ingredient that drives the collective intelligence of human groups, it is also the hidden ingredient that has driven the unique evolutionary pathway of our success.

The second book I read was Pick Three by Randi Zuckerberg. It was a quick read.

In today’s fast paced, technology driven world, Randi Zuckerberg says being well lopsided rather than well rounded is the secret to achieve work life balance. Work, family, Fitness, Sleep and Friends are key priorities most individuals have. In order to have a manageable list of main priorities, hobbies and interests have been clubbed under friends. You may find sleep listed as a priority to be interesting. Modern life has taken a toll on the number of hours we sleep. Sleep is essential for our health and you may have seen that when you are fully rested, you function at your best.

On a single day, it is difficult to do justice to all the priorities. Even Superman or Superwoman cannot. Hence Randi’s advice is to pick three priorities for the day and focus on them.  This not only ensures you give your best to the priorities you picked but also reduces your stress for not having done things that weren’t your priority for the day. If you average your daily pick of priorities, over a period of say a fortnight or month, you will see that each priority gets the attention you wanted to assign it. 

To some extent, I do follow this, but sometimes I have 4 priorities, sometimes 2 and sometimes all and sometimes none. My jury is still out on this. In the meanwhile, happy experimenting!