Neurodiversity: The superpower fuelling creativity and innovation

‘Diversity of thought’ has been at the top of the business thinking agenda for the last few years. The best teams are built around diversity. If you get a group of people in a room with different perspectives, backgrounds and experiences, you’ll see a boost in innovation and creativity.

There is one group of people however that we’re failing to include. A huge group that is rich in talent: The ‘neurodivergent’.

Born to think differently 

Different people think differently, but neurodiverse people were born to think differently – their brains are wired that way. The neurodivergent population includes people who have dyslexia, autism, dyspraxia, and ADHD.

Historically, these alternative thinking styles were viewed negatively, with a focus on the difficulties each person may face, and the subsequent ways they could better ‘fit in’. Thankfully times have changed and the spotlight is shifting towards a more positive focus on the unique capabilities and strengths each person has.

There are loads of examples where such thinking has lead to creativity and innovation. Let’s name check just a few: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson, Richard Branson, Mozart, Picasso, Stanley Kubrick, Andy Warhol. The list goes on.

Economic proof that neurodiversity is good for business

That’s according to the authors of “Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage” in the Harvard Business Review. Have a read and you’ll see why.

Many neurodiverse people with autism and dyslexia have extraordinary skills, including those in pattern recognition, memory, and maths. Yet they often struggle to fit the profiles sought by employers.

You only have to look at Apple, Microsoft, Google, SAP and Hewlett Packard who are seeing productive gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovative capabilities, and increased employee engagement as a result of adapting their HR process to access neurodiverse talent.

The talent pool is huge but we’re not diving in 

With one in 100 people now recognised as autistic, and one in 10 having ADHD and the same for dyslexia, there’s a huge talent pool to tap into. The problem is we don’t and our HR processes could be to blame.

According to the National Autistic Society, only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time employment, with 77% wanting to work. That’s got to change.

Make simple adjustments to your HR process

Some highly talented candidates may have struggled for years to find their niche and might not look great on paper. Conventional interviews can be challenging and it’s not difficult to see how an autistic job applicant may struggle. They may have challenges making eye contact and may not know to expand their answer in ways to show their skills and experiences.

To make the best possible use of the skills that neurodiverse people can bring, the work environment needs to be more understanding, aware and respectful. It often only takes minor adjustments or an understanding manager to help these employees deliver outstanding results.

These 7 elements should do it

The authors of ‘Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage’ identified the following 7 elements that successful HR programmes had in common. The work for managers will be harder, but the payoff to companies will be considerable: access to more of their employees’ talents, along with diverse perspectives that will help them compete:

  1. team with governments or nonprofits experienced in working with people with disabilities
  2. use non-interview assessment processes
  3. train other workers and managers in what to expect
  4. set up a support system
  5. tailor methods for managing careers
  6. scale the program
  7. mainstream the program

Keep assumptions to a minimum 

When hiring neurodiverse employees, it’s crucial to keep assumptions to a minimum, however positive. Having autism doesn’t automatically make you good at maths in the same way having ADHD doesn’t mean you struggle to focus.  Some autistic people are chatty and sociable, whereas others prefer to avoid small talk. Some love repetitive, structured tasks, while others thrive in creative areas.

No two people are the same. There’s a saying “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”.

Seems like a no-brainer

Yep. The CIPD sum it up perfectly in their guide to Neurodiversity at work:

“Given the overall prevalence of neurodivergent people, there are clear risks of not taking steps to ensure inclusion. What will it cost you not to get the most out of your employees in terms of productivity, or to lose talent to more inclusive, attractive employers? What will it mean for your product innovation to miss out on the ‘diversity of thought’ that neurodiversity can deliver, and that other firms are setting themselves up to benefit from? And what might not understanding the needs of your customers cost in terms of lost revenue, and even brand reputation?”

Can you afford to miss out? Thought not.