Rebel Ideas - Matthew Syed
Updated: Mar 10
In Autumn 2021 I visited St Mary’s College (Hull) to understand how they planned a journey towards really great teaching - in essence, I was curious to know how much freedom teachers had to innovate, to be themselves, or was really great teaching the product of a deep consistency checked via compliance processes. In conversation with Head of School, Maria Stead, I was directed towards Matthew Syed’s 2019 book Rebel Ideas and particularly the chapter Constructive Dissent. I have found Syed’s ideas very thought-provoking as I wrestle with how they may apply in a school and MAT setting.
Syed brings some thinking to ‘team effectiveness’ which I have found really useful - and he uses some great diagrams, which I always find helpful. He is also a master story-teller and uses a wide range of examples to illustrate how diverse teams make the best decisions.
He brings a point of clarity in making a distinction between two scales of decision-making in teams. Firstly there are the sort of decisions that need making quickly, usually in times of crisis. These decisions aren’t made effectively by diverse teams because there isn’t enough time to consult, decision needs making imminently (I would say that the best way to make these sorts of decisions is to fall back on the organisation's values and principles as the guide).
A second scale of decision-making is that of great complexity and longer timescales - the sorts of decisions that set a strategic direction over the medium or long term. Syed points out that in this scenario the last thing a team needs is for all the thinking to be taken by one person - the problem being addressed is just too complex, it needs the thinking of a team of people with cognitive diversity. Why is that so?
Four diagrams (with apologies for the dodgy drawings)
Each diagram features a rectangle, … the problem space … which represents the complex issue with which we are grappling.
1 “Rebels without a cause”
The most dysfunctional type of team. Team members (the circles in the diagram) may not even be in the problem space, or agreed about what the problem space is. Team members will be pulling in different directions, not understanding each other. In this scenario, someone needs to call a halt to proceedings and refocus the team on the key issue, or even consider the composition of the team itself.
2 “An unintelligent team” - a team of clones
Great - each team member is in the problem space - they agree on what the issue is and they all have a contribution to make. But … the team leader is such a dominant force that each team member begins to think like them, behave like them, in extreme cases dress like them. On the surface, the team may look like a tight-knit unit. They have complete consistency of approach. But they only inhabit a fraction of the problem space. The lack of diversity in the team can only lead to a blinkered narrow set of solutions. The problem space is a complex space - it needs people with different approaches, styles, backgrounds to bring a diversity of thought processes and experiences to allow for a comprehensive view of the issue.
3 “An intelligent team” - a diverse team of rebels
Here we see Syed’s definition of ‘rebel’ - a diverse thinker, someone who brings something unique to the team because of their life experiences. The team is a diverse team, they will bring a wide range of thought processes and experience to deliberations. In order to gain this diversity, they may not all sit at the same position in the organisation's hierarchy - they may have been brought together from across an organisation for a specific problem-solving project. The team leader isn’t threatened by the diversity of opinion because they know that it will bring hitherto insight into the decision-making process which will result in a high-quality decision. That implies an answer to the question, who takes the final decision?
4 “A diverse team” - with a dominance dynamic
Here it is clear who the final decision maker is. The diverse team offers a wide range of opinions, perspectives, experiences. The team leader is open to hearing things from across a wide spectrum of experiences. In Syed’s view, this team will make the most intelligent decisions because of the diversity of the team. They will also make decisions because it is clear who makes the final decision. The likelihood of team buy-in to the final decision is high (even if they don’t necessarily agree with every part of the decision), because they have been meaningfully involved in the process and have influenced the final decision.
What might the consequences for Thrive be?
Complex decision-making processes need to be seen well ahead of time and given structured time for deliberate contributions.
Decisions will be taken by the right person in the hierarchy, but the assumption that the people ‘at the top’ will have all of the answers is fatally flawed, and so…
…when focusing on solving complex problems we must give due consideration to the diversity of the team we pull together to ensure that a range of opinion delivers insights that a purely hierarchical approach would have missed.
An example of taking such an approach is the work currently going on across Thrive around thinking about how we go about assessing the quality of teaching across our 9 schools from September 2022. I drew together a diverse team from across Thrive of some 20 people including members of the Development Team, SLT members, Headteachers, Heads of Schools, teachers. Alongside this diversity of thought, we have read widely and have consulted with other schools / MATs and Unions. This team is clear that final decisions will be taken by the Development Team under my leadership, but on the way we will have gained insights that enable us to make the best decision. One insight involved how different schools think about issues of compliance, so-called non-negotiables, and their relative importance in bringing consistency of approach across a school. This has led us to debate two lists - things that can reasonably be seen as matters for compliance, and things that can’t. It’s a fascinating debate, with plenty of divergent and complimentary thinking which will eventually lead us to an answer to my opening question for my time spent at St Mary’s College - is really great teaching the product of a deep consistency checked via compliance processes? At the present moment I am thinking that a compliance model can get us to ‘good enough’ because it gives teachers the toolkit they need to do a good job. But a compliance model can’t get us to ‘really great’, because ‘really great’ is about teachers making ‘in-the-moment decisions’ having the skill to know which tool they need to pull out, and crucially, which tools to leave in the bag - and that suggests that there isn’t a foolproof template for great teaching, there is room for diversity.