Building a successful team requires neurodiverse talent

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Building a successful team requires more than gathering the best people with strong technical skills and relevant experiences. Diversity in our teams and our workplaces should be more than gender, race, age, ethnicity, physical ability; visible characteristics we are born with.

Cognitive diversity or neurodiversity should also be a characteristic considered when selecting candidates for teams and employment. A “neurodiversity approach is primarily a call to include and respect people whose brains work in atypical ways[1]. In essence, individuals who think differently and with unique perspectives are needed to solve some of businesses’ most complex problems.

Meet Simon

Simon* is self-employed with a successful business, thanks to a strong online presence. One of the lucky ones who’s business is still healthy despite the pandemic. He is smart, personable, very analytical, and used to travel for speaking engagements for his retail brand. His passions are hockey, fast cars, and aged whiskey.

I first met Simon when our sons were in preschool together, 6+ years ago. Our friendship grew as our kids played soccer and now esports together. We also share other common interests including travel, cost consciousness {immigrant parents}, and food {his wife and I are foodies}. His family recently relocated to an acreage with a gorgeous Architectural Digest worthy home, with all the amenities and material toys they can afford.

Lacks emotional intelligence — awkward during social situations or inability to read social cues.

During our social gatherings Simon would always be late {i.e. arriving separately from his family}, he would rarely engage in group discussions, and or disappear upon arrival. We assumed he was running late from work, then we jumped to marital issues, but came back to he didn’t like socializing. And yet one-on-one Simon is engaging and very good company to be around. Conversations with him are refreshing. We would jump to different topics, share stories, our discussions would flow without issue.

Simon would have the most interesting perspectives. For example he’s passionate about climate change. He believes carbon recycling is the next step to a carbon-negative solution of carbon emissions conversion into fuel. He always has an intriguing point of view to various world problems, especially sustainability. Simon’s contribution is collecting plastics, that cannot be recycled, for future use.

You wouldn’t know by first meeting him, but Simon has some idiosyncrasies that may seem {where you would think is} odd or even strange. He is not attuned to social or emotional cues. For instance, without a second thought Simon allows his kids all under 12 to consume R-rated content. Movies, games, anything with mature subject matter that should not be shared with young children. {WTF Simon!?! So not appropriate!} Simon also lacks empathy and will say completely off the cuff remarks about situations or people unfiltered and in naiveté. {Simon!?! Did you really mean to say that?}

He/she/they are just different

Simon supports his family, is contributing to the community, and visibly can be seen as another neurotypical individual in society. Until you spend time with and really get to know Simon, you wouldn’t know he has Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism.

“Asperger’s syndrome (AS) is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) marked by impaired social interactions and limited repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities. Individuals with ASD have symptoms that fall on a continuum — and since Asperger’s syndrome is now a part of ASD it is commonly believed that individuals with Asperger’s syndrome have high functioning ASD.” [2]

Simon’s quirks may lead to negative biases against him for his poor judgement and communication style. However, when you hear him speak to large groups about his retail brand and or hear his opinion about climate change and possible solutions you wouldn’t know he had been diagnosed with ASD.

Neurodiverse talent

Successful teams can be more than just team members who possess the core competency of functional or technical skills and backgrounds; the requirements to getting the work done. What would happen if we were more attuned to selecting team members with neurodiverse attributes when building our teams?

Workforce development programs address autistic individuals, but these programs need to be expanded. As noted in HBR article to leverage neurodiversity as a competitive advantage “… to extend them to people affected by dyspraxia (a neurologically based physical disorder), dyslexia, ADHD, social anxiety disorders, and other conditions. Many people with these disorders have higher-than-average abilities; research shows that some conditions, including autism and dyslexia, can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics.”

Tapping into neurodiverse individuals would bring different points of view to solving problems and potentially achieving more robust solutions. For instance, what activities or steps to product development have not been explored? Have we missed test scenarios not already defined in the test cases repository?

These examples may not be apparent with homogenous thinkers. Where their solutions may be replications of previous projects. Or deploying products with unknown defects not obvious to the Team to meet a Client’s timeframe or believing the solution has achieved their goals or objectives.

Simon’s attention to detail and different perspectives is exactly what makes his business successful— it stands out differently. He has an unconventional ability to predict trends for products before they become a hot commodity for all retailers. Simon also presents use cases and recommendations to his suppliers on how to reduce packaging to reduce storage space for retailers to order more product than needed.

How can you leverage these neurodiverse individuals on your teams or for your business?

This post is the first of a series of posts highlighting the topic of NEURODIVERSITY.

*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

[1] Clearing Up Some Misconceptions about Neurodiversity, by Aiyana Bailin on June 6, 2019

[2] Asperger’s Syndrome, by Psychology Today on February 21, 2019

Lifelong learner, Mother, Wife, Food Allergy Advocate, Consultant, Traveller, Foodie, She/Her