THINKING ABOUT THINKING & NEURODIVERSITY

Bryce Hoffman Introducing Red Team Thinking in London.

Back in October 2019, I organised a number of events in London at which Bryce Hoffman spoke about Red Team Teaming and Red Team Thinking. It is based on concepts and methods developed by the U.S. military. They were developed to prevent the mistakes made by the US military and intelligence services in Iraq and Afghanistan. And to learn the lessons from the terrorist attacks on New York, which were preventable, and should have been prevented.

The concept and methods were developed following some deep thinking about thinking. More specifically, the goal was to ensure that better thinking would result in better decisions making.

Plenty has been written about the extent to which our thinking is infected by cognitive biases, and the fallacies of one kind or another that we come to believe. To a large extent Red Team Thinking is about how to over come those problems.

Ulf Löwenhav also published a book last year, The Power of Active Thinking: How to become a resilient contrarian through the strength of engaged thinking. Ulf’s views on thinking are based on his experience as a practitioner in investment banking and his studies at Henley Business School.

In December 2019 I gave a talk to the cohorts on the Doctors in Business Administration programmes at Warwick Business School. The title of my talk was “Undaunted: How Successful Leaders Face Wicked Problems”. I evolved that into a conference, the full title of which was “Undaunted: How Successful Leaders Face Wicked Problems and avoid predictable surprises”.

Most crises, it turns out, are predictable and were predicted. But those in power failed to prevent them. Often this is the result of what Margaret Heffernan calls Wilful Blindness.

The incidents of crises are said to be increasing as the world is more and more VUCA — volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The evidence for the rise in the rates of corporate crisis is provided in the 2019 PwC Global Crisis Survey. Its findings show that business leaders are not up to the job of decision making in this environment.

The VUCA environment makes it more difficult to think about, see and understand challenges. This is the reason it has become necessary to think about thinking and develop new ways of thinking and seeing.

Training in new ways of thinking is important, and a key part of the solution. But these issues are also part of the backstory to the growing recognition of the need for diverse and inclusive teams. Diverse teams are more likely to bring diverse perspectives to an issue.

But diversity is often approached in a confused way. It is either driven by ethical and moral considerations. Or, more likely, by fear of the reputational risks of not embracing the issues. Less often, we hear noises about the advantages to be gained from diverse thinking. Those advantages are not well understood, and they are considered hard to quantify.

Thinking about diversity is often limited to demographic diversity. But the concept of Neurodiversity is emerging. However, few really understand what it means. Even fewer understand how to embrace it.

The population is said to be made-up of the “Neuronormals” or “Neurodiverse” groups. People in certain groups are said to be “on the spectrum”. That does not mean they are just affected to different degrees, but also in various different ways.

I’m thankful to David Atkinson, himself autistic, for sharing his view that, “My preference when talking spectrum is not one dimensional. It is more like a colour wheel, infinitely variable. Thus one isn’t at one end or the other, but can be at a point in a space that is influenced by multiple dimensions”. He adds, “when you’ve met one autistic, you’ve only met one autistic.”

Research shows many people in the population are “on the spectrum”, but many are yet to be diagnosed, so do not realise they are.

In raising the issue of Neurodiversity, the point I wish to make is this. Whilst we might need to train people to think differently, we should also recognise that as a population we do already think differently, naturally.

For some, those that lean towards one end of the spectrum, it is clear they think very differently. And this can manifest itself in different types of behaviour. For the Neuronormal that behaviour can be challenging. And for those affected by the conditions it may be a disability in some respects, such as the ability to socially interact and communicate, but in other ways they may have other super abilities that no Neuronormal person can hope to match.

What Red Team Thinking does is to get Neuronormal thinkers to think differently, and this is very useful. But naturally Neurodiverse teams are another way of ensuring a broader range of perspectives are employed.

Another way to look at this is to recognise that to some extent we are all “differently abled”. This is partly because we are “wired differently”, and partly because we are conditioned differently — by the way we are raised and educated for example.

The issue is whether or not to train for neurodiversity or to hire for neurodiversity. I think the answer is probably both, but in some cases no amount of training will lead to the extraordinary capabilities that some neurodivergent people have.

Given that strategic management is about being able to think strategically and make good decisions, these issues are absolutely central to strategic management. This was acknowledged in an article on Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage in Harvard Business Review. The authors were Robert D. Austin is a professor of information systems and the faculty director of the Learning Innovation Initiative at Ivey Business School, and, Gary P. Pisano, the Harry E. Figgie Jr. Professor of Business Administration and the senior associate dean of faculty development at Harvard Business School. The authors discuss these issues in this IdeaCast.

Austin & Pisano make a compelling case that companies would be wise to consider this issue seriously and change their recruitment and personnel management practices accordingly. Citing research into changes made by major corporations, they show that the case for doing so is overwhelmingly positive.

Charlotte Valeur, Chair of the Institute of Directors.

The reason I am writing about these issues is that I was alerted to them by Charlotte Valeur, Chair of the Institute of Directors. She was herself diagnosed as autistic a few years ago and tells her story in several major newspapers today (Times, Telegraph, Independent). She was also interviewed on BBC Radio4’s Today program (starts at 1.42.00). All this media exposure is in support of a campaign for more research into the topic. The campaign is launched today by Autistica.

In the campaign video I was struck by the comment of a young boy:

We all have strengths and weaknesses and it is the job of leaders to ensure everyone’s strengths and weaknesses as individuals are recognised in the process of ensuring everyone can be the best they can be, and realise their full potential. Doing so also benefits the company, so it makes good business sense too.

Given the unique skills and characteristics of many people who are not Neuronormal — skills that are highly valuable and for which there is a shortage — it makes no sense that so many people with these skills are unemployed or underemployed simply because they are different. It is good to see that Enlightened Enterprises are getting wise to the advantages, but there is a long way to go and the research by Autistica is definitely needed. Here is how you can find out more and support the campaign.

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Paul Barnett

Paul Barnett

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Advocating the purpose of all enterprise should be contributions to sustainable widely shared prosperity measured in terms of human flourishing and wellbeing.