Why Neurodiversity is the Future of Innovation.

And how Organisations can Leverage this.

In my work as a consultant, neurodiversity is something that organisations often misunderstand or get wrong - neurodiversity being a term that celebrates the different ways the mind works and is often used as the umbrella term for Dyslexia, Autism, and ADHD amongst others. In essence the problem lies in the attempt to get neurodiverse thinkers to ‘fit’ into the current structures, systems and processes that cater for the neurotypical mind, rather than harnessing and utilising a mind that thinks and processes information differently.

In 2006, Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on schools and creativity [1] touched the hearts of millions of people, while not specifically addressing the neurodiverse community, he spoke about the educational system valuing a particular form of intelligence largely based on memorising and recalling facts, rather than an intelligence that is different, interrelated and innovative. He even went as far as to argue that because of the way the educational system is set up, highly intelligent, brilliant and creative people often think they are not.

In the work place, psychometric testing has long become the norm and is used across all sectors. And yet again, it is a standardised test designed for the neurotypical mind. Think of a scientist or inventor, many months, if not years in a room-alone, thinking deeply about the subject matter, living and breathing it every moment of the day. Often a neurodivergent thinker either has to assimilate all the information to come up with a solution based on logical reasoning, or in a different scenario, has to first think about the bigger picture and how everything connects, questioning the presumptions and interpreting what is being asked in a number of possible ways. In both cases, often coming up with a solution that is advanced, radical and progressive-something that I call Radical Intelligence.

As a result, it is not a surprise that many neurodiverse people have struggled to fit into the educational system or conventional workplace. Because of this, they are labelled as having a learning disability rather than recognising that the current system does not recognise or value the contribution of a different way of thinking. Data showing the consequences of this approach is devastating-84 per cent of autistic people are unemployed [2], 40 per cent of unemployed people are dyslexic and there is a higher correlation between neurodiversity and offending [3], mental health issues, suicide (50 per cent in those under 15), and drug addiction (40 per cent)[4]. The famous dyslexic author, Sally Gardner calls this a Human Rights issue on a massive scale.

The 2010 Equalities Act has helped many neurodiverse people by ensuring that they get the reasonable adjustments they need to support them to function in their roles. However, how to utilise their full potential in a way that directly benefits the organisation, is a more complicated matter. Providing someone with tinted paper and assisted technology for example, can definitely help and make a difference, but is a long way from helping them to understand the magnificence of their minds and how the organisation can fully harness and utilise this.

And yet, this way of thinking is needed more than ever before. In his new book, The Start Up Way, Eric Ries [5], talks about how corporates need to become more innovative, agile and entrepreneurial in an age of increasing disruption and uncertainty. The acronym VUCA-Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity -is also used to reflect the general situation and conditions that organisations increasingly face.

Thomas G West, an author for Prometheus Books -a publisher well known for publishing provocative and progressive books that test the boundaries of established thoughts -also argues that the neurodiverse mind can look at things differently and see things that others can’t. They see unrelated connections and come up with deep and fresh insights, being less susceptible to group thinking mentality[6].

So where do we start? And what can organisations do?

1. Firstly, is there a commitment throughout the organisation and a broad awareness and understanding of the benefits of neurodiversity as opposed to disability? Is it done in a way that is real, and that people can relate to? For example, by sharing real life stories that affect members of the team and their families-often care, curiosity and honest discussions have a bigger impact than prescribed training sessions enforced by management.

2. Assess the current situation. Is there any data showing how many people are neurodiverse and what roles they do? How many have applied for jobs and have been successful or unsuccessful and the reasons why? Did some people not apply at all because of the psychometric testing? Are they engaged? What have they achieved as a result of their neurodiversity and what challenges have they faced in the organisation? Are they fully aware of their talents and is there potential to develop this? Are these questions being asked in exit interviews or for people who are retiring?

3. How can the organisation specifically benefit from neurodiverse thinkers-bearing in mind that neurodiversity covers a broad spectrum and that everyone is different, although there are some common traits that can be identified -and how can their skills be applied across the organisation in all areas of discipline?

4. Design jobs around neurodiversity and create strong neurodiverse teams. For example, I am dyslexic, I’m a big picture thinker, good with people and solving problems but hate repetition. I work well with someone on the autistic spectrum who enjoys repetition, routine and analysing details, and dislikes the social aspect of work. This has worked well, where both parties have an understanding of what we both offer and value this contribution. Empower the neurodiverse person to excel in something that they are really good at.

5. Review your recruitment practices. When looking at job roles, think about the qualities that you really need-for example, do you need a software tester to have good presentational skills? Specify only the qualities that you really need for the job that will attract neurodiverse thinkers, like problem solving rather than meeting KPIs and working under stress and tight deadlines etc. Some roles might require this but also factor into your organisation the importance of other skills like innovation, learning from trial and error, the power of one idea and how this could make a big difference. Reconsider psychometric tests-giving a candidate extra time usually doesn’t account for someone whose mind thinks in a completely different way. For example if you are dyslexic, and take longer to think -thinking more deeply about issues, how they all interrelate and generate ideas through connections then a different selection method might be more suitable.

6. Is innovation built into your organisation? The reality is often we are focused on the task at hand and getting that done. People are also often stressed and overworked-it takes conscious time and effort to question, challenge, make mistakes and think of things differently. Is there a way to make innovation central to the organisation and work it into the system and processes without disrupting day-to-day work that needs to be done? For example a company called Enswarm have developed software that builds innovation into the organisation-it helps teams turn questions into ideas, and ideas into action -highlighting ideas with potential and parking other ideas so that they are not lost. It also enables everyone to participate anonymously regardless of their job role or status, bypassing the hierarchical and political issues neurodiverse people often find challenging when thinking of new ideas.

7. Are you challenging traditional hierarchy structures-for example is the manager more focused on allocating work and getting it done? Do they not understand the concept and idea that the neurodiverse person is trying to articulate or have too much pressure to meet targets to consider them? Think of it this way, often dyslexic persons perform well in business because they are able to focus on what they enjoy doing best and also delegate work that they are not so good at. They are also good at the bigger vision and engaging and inspiring others with this-how can you best utilise this talent if someone is neurodiverse in your organisation and has a junior role?

8. Does your organisation cater for different thinking and processing styles? For example, I can take longer to think, tend to do things best alone and in a creative and quiet environment. I also procrastinate more, as I am thinking about so many issues and how they all interrelate so this can overwhelm me at times. However, sometimes I can know things intuitively and get to grips very quickly with what the issue is, so not all situations are the same. Neurodiverse people can also get mentally tired very quickly because of all the processing and thinking they are doing-does the work environment allow them time and space for breaks, and is there support for alternative working patterns, like working from home or a more creative co-working space/café? And flexible working focused on outcomes rather than time spent at a desk

9. Is there an empowerment programme for neurodiverse staff that includes a social and emotional component? And is there opportunity for them to work and develop their ideas? And a mechanism that allows the ideas to be considered and furthered worked on, supported by the organisation?

10. For individuals, self-confidence is key -how do you react if someone is questioning, thinking differently or challenging an idea? Sometimes a person on the spectrum might focus on the solution and emphasise the logical reasoning but this may come across as critical. Being able to handle this and having confidence is key here. A good definition of confidence is the ability to be kind, compassionate and forgiving to yourself and others.

About the Author

Saraswati is founder of Radical Intelligence -a global neurodiversity consultancy company focusing on the strengths of neurodiverse thinkers and working with organisations to harness and utilise a more innovative way of thinking. She has a background spanning over 10 years working in Government on Policy, Strategy and Diversity & Inclusion. More recently, she was one of the founding members of a successful fast-track Prop Tech Company. Her book, Radical Intelligence: The Power of Thinking Differently (working title) will be published by Your Stories Matter at the end of 2018.

Follow Saraswati on Twitter @radical_intel

For enquiries and to book Saraswati for speaking events contact info@radicalintelligence.co

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/tmi/2016/oct/27/11-shocking-statistics-about-autism-and-employment

[3] http://www.driveryouthtrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Dyslexia-facts-and-figures-PD.pdf

[4]http://madebydyslexia.org/assets/downloads/made_by_dyslexia_connecting_the_dots.pdf

[5] The Start-up Way: How Entrepreneurial Management Transforms Culture and Drives Growth, by Eric Ries. Portfolio Penguin 17 Oct 2017

[6] Thomas G West — foreword for forgotten letters: an anthology of literature by dyslexic writers, published by RASP, 2011