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Harnessing neurodiversity to enhance strategic decision making in your firm

14 Jun 2021  | 
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Harnessing neurodiversity to enhance strategic decision making in your firm

Can neuro-atypical team members help improve the quality of decisions in teams responsible for the complex problem-solving in VUCA situations, such as in addressing strategy business transformation and innovation?

I enjoyed watching the ABC TV series ‘The Good Doctor’. Starring Freddy Highmore as the likeable Dr Shaun Murphy, an autistic surgical resident at a California hospital, the series has been massively popular. I thought it to be an interesting, engaging example of neurodiversity in a highly professional workplace.

As both a keen scholar and a practitioner of business strategy, I have a deep interest in strategic decision-making processes. In particular, I like to explore how firm leaders and leadership teams make sense of volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (‘VUCA’) situations and reach the best decisions, to deliver the best outcomes for their firms.  So, it was very easy for me to imagine the benefits of having somebody on a firm’s leadership team who, although perhaps lacking in some social skills, can visualise the most difficult challenges and opportunities and to conceptualise innovative solutions that are far beyond the capabilities of colleagues. Who would not want such a person on their team?

I was surprised though to be taken to task by my daughter Shannon, a neuroscientist, who told me that in her opinion the series misrepresents autism and might even harm the cause of neurodiversity.

Dr Murphy is not only autistic but also a savant who is blessed with a photographic memory.  Savant syndrome is exceedingly rare. A mere handful of true savants (perhaps a few hundred) are alive on earth today. It does occur more frequently amongst people with autism, but still only at a rate of one percent or less of that population. So, the story in ‘The Good Doctor’ is about an especially rare human being with extraordinary savant talents, who is autistic, rather than about a ‘typical’ autistic person.

The autistic savant is a familiar trope also for filmmakers, examples being ‘Rain Man’ (1988), ‘Little Man Tate’ (1991), ‘Mercury Rising’ (1998) and ‘A Brilliant Young Mind’ (2015) – to name just a few. Some of these do better jobs than others in properly depicting the conditions, their underlying issues and the implications for people who live and work with them.

It is probably fair to say that some of these have created perceptions of neurodiversity that are unhelpful in inspiring firms to better accommodate neuro-atypical individuals who work in them, and even less helpful in guiding firms on how such individuals might be proactively and thoughtfully engaged in harnessing their unique capabilities to create competitive advantage for the firm.

Autistic savants are extraordinary human beings

True savants can demonstrate spectacular skills. In a series of lectures delivered in 1887, the English physician Dr J. Langdon Down described a boy who could recite extensive passages from Gibbons’ six volume work: ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’. He also described a different boy who could effortlessly multiply any three figures by another three figures but who, even after seeing Dr Down almost daily for two and a half years, was persistently unable to remember Dr Down’s name (Down 1887).

Typically, savant skills occur in five general areas: music, art, calendar calculating, mathematics or mechanical/visual-spatial skills. Less frequently, they can include polyglotism (the ability to speak many languages), unusual sensory discrimination, athletics or outstanding knowledge in specific fields. They can also be acquired following cerebral damage through stroke, illnesses such as meningitis, or trauma (Treffert 2014).

Strategic decision-making is complex

Can neuro-atypical team members help improve the quality of decisions in teams responsible for the complex problem-solving in VUCA situations such as in addressing strategy business transformation and innovation?

The complexity involved in top management team decisions has been long recognised and drivers of success and failure in such teams are a perennial research topic. These include cognitive processes including, for instance, cognitive diversity, task conflict and competence-based trust (Olsen et al 2007).

Intuitively, one would expect that diversity in decision-making teams should improve the quality of their decisions. It generates a wider range of perspectives and alternative solutions than in more uniform groups. Correlations between top management team diversity and performance in strategic change in multicultural contexts have also been well established (for instance Díaz-Fernández et al. 2018). In fact, harnessing multinational, multicultural diversity can be surprisingly powerful. As an example, unrelated teams of diverse, multinational professionals were able to beat Netflix’s algorithms in predicting user movie ratings based on ratings applied previously to other movies by those users (Page 2019).

Research findings about the benefits of diversity in teams engaged with complex problem-solving and decision making have not been uniformly positive, though.

For instance, research into the impact of gender diversity on board performance in boards of 25 banks in the United Arab Emirates (Iren and Tee 2017) and those of 186 publicly listed companies in The Netherlands and Denmark (Marinova et al. 2016) concluded that it made no difference.

This ambiguity might be a result, at least partially, of lack of holistic consideration of the multiple dimensions of team diversity in existing scholarly literature (Díaz-Fernández et al. 2018).

Another reason might be critical mass. The boards of the companies studied by Marinova et al. had an average of only 5.4 percent female directors, for instance, and some of them had only one female director. Critical mass might be especially important in the case of neurodiversity, given the challenges that neuro-atypical people can encounter at work and generally. These, include social difficulties, heightened anxiety, problems with self-advocacy, and a sense of being stigmatized (Gillespie-Lynch et al. 2017, cited in Ortiz 2020).

Diversity alone is not sufficient unless mechanisms are put in place to make it ‘safe’ and to constructively harness its effects. How the team’s activities and processes are designed are crucial to creating that safety.

The Olsen et al. research into the effects of cognitive diversity studied ‘task conflict’ as a key variable, following previous research (Amason 1996) which showed such conflict to be “inevitable” in strategic decision making. This is because diverse executives will typically view environments differently and thus voice different perspectives. Olsen et al. argue that benefits of diversity tend not even to emerge unless task conflict is allowed to surface and that this is “extremely important” especially in highly complex decisions being made in environments that are constantly changing.

Competence-based trust (or, conversely, for clarity, lack of mistrust based on perceptions of diminished competence) interact with diversity to modify levels of task conflict. This allows such conflict to exist without becoming acrimonious or degenerating into interpersonal, ‘relationship conflict.’ Well-intentioned but misguided leadership action aimed at defusing conflict and maintaining harmony can reduce the benefits of diversity and, ultimately, harm the quality of team decisions. This logic is shown in Figure 1.

The challenges of diversity management

At its core, diversity means any dimension that can be used to differentiate groups and people from one another. Simply put, it is what makes each of us different to each other. The boundaries between categories are furthermore porous. Figure 1 shows twelve interconnected dimensions of diversity that are relevant to strategizing or, more particularly, the factors that lead to good strategy such as creativity and innovation, sense-making (especially of complex situations), empathy, discipline, analysis, handling ambiguity and collaboration.

It is often impossible to reliably allocate a particular characteristic that an individual has to a single form of diversity. For instance, a particular characteristic might be attributable to a combination of being neuro-atypical and of a particular gender, socio-economic background, sexual orientation, ethnicity and culture. Interacting complexly and dynamically with each other, their  effects are modified also by external factors and each individual’s learning experiences to create each unique human being.

Likewise, the factors that make a particular situation safe for one demographic might make it safe also for another – or it might not be enough. The point is, if the positive effects of diversity are to be harnessed, then the needs of all the diversity characteristics present in the participating individuals need to be considered and addressed in the processes that are put in place to address the task in hand – for instance, complex problem-solving, innovation and strategizing.

The Neurodiversity View

According to a critique published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy (Nelson 2021), the ‘Neurodiversity View’ (NV)  makes claims that are both conceptual and political in nature. Conceptual NV claims hold that some neurocognitive atypicalities currently classified as disorders should instead be understood simply as forms of diversity.

Political NV claims hold that neurodiversity ought to be respected in ways similar to how human differences such as ethnicity, age and gender are. To illustrate, the National Symposium on Neurodiversity at Syracuse University defines neurodiversity as: “a concept where neurological differences are to be recognized and respected as any other human variation.”

A broad and varied range of labels and descriptors have emerged through the NV, including, besides ‘neurodiverse’ itself, also ‘neurodivergent’, ‘neuro-atypical’, ‘differently abled’, and ‘on the spectrum.’ Avoiding stereotypes and being respectful to sensibilities and preferences can be a real challenge when applying labels though, especially in working with neuro-atypical people (Ortiz, 2020).

NV arguments include that seeking to cure neuro-atypicalities would be on a par with seeking to ‘cure’ people who are gay, or black, or left-handed (Ortega 2009). These arguments point to behaviours that were previously, but are no longer, classified as disorders. For instance, homosexuality was only decriminalised in the UK in 1967 and it continued to be considered a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973.

As an even more bizarre example, consider the disorder ‘drapetomania’. At roughly the same time that Dr Down was delivering his lectures on savant syndrome, drapetomania was considered briefly in slave-owning America to be a mental disorder that caused enslaved Africans to flee captivity. Thankfully, this particular ‘disorder’ never gained much traction and was rapidly consigned first to the realms of pseudoscience and then to intellectual oblivion. It remains, though, a dire warning about how much harm pseudoscientific approaches can do in this field.

At its origin in the 1990s, the NV focused initially on high-functioning autism (HFA). This is, autism where the patient exhibits no intellectual disability, but might exhibit deficits in communication, emotion recognition and expression, and social interaction. The fictional Dr Murphy would be an example of HFA.

The scope of the NV has since expanded to encompass the broader autism spectrum and other neurocognitive differences including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, developmental dyspraxia, dyslexia, epilepsy, psychopathy, sociopathy, Tourette’s syndrome, oppositional defiant disorder, dyscalculia, and paracusia – among others. Stigmas, discrimination and exclusion frequently associated with those who are neuro-atypical have also begun to attract attention in disability research.

While acknowledging its powerful challenge to the status quo and fully defending its political aims of respect, inclusion and accommodation, Nelson’s critique concludes that the NV falls short of convincing that autism is not a disorder. Few would argue that some of the other conditions that now attract attention are not disorders, too. In progressive firms, equally few would argue against the NV political claim that so long as they are able to do their work, given all support that might be necessary, neuro-atypical people should be accepted and celebrated in the workplace in the same way as any other minorities. That, quite simply, is the right thing to do.

Neurodiversity as a source of sustained competitive advantage? 

But can the harnessing of unique capabilities of neuro-atypical people yield deeper benefits for firms that are able to effectively harness those capabilities? People have long speculated that some disorders might impart certain cognitive benefits, such as better insight, inventiveness and creativity (Schuldberg, 2001, White & Shah 2006). Can these even help create the strategic ‘Holy Grail’ of sustainable competitive advantage for a firm?

One of the most compelling models of competitive advantage, the ‘Resource based View’ (RBV), holds that sustained competitive advantage is derived from so-called ‘VRIO’ resources that a firm possesses. That is, resources that are Valuable, Rare and Inimitable, and that the firm is 0rganised so as to be able to exploit their benefits (Barney 1991). This is illustrated in figure 2.

From this one might derive the following questions, when asessing options for integrating neurodiversity (and other forms of diversity that enhance cognitive diversity into the firm’s strategic decision-making and other processes) :

  • Can harnessing neurodiversity deliver benefits that are objectively valuable, for instance better problem-solving, strategy, solutions for revenue generation and/or for enhancing efficiency and reducing costs?
  • Are competencies that neurodiversity unlocks, and the neuro-atypical people who hold the capabilities involved, rare in the market?
  • Are rivals able to easily imitate, e.g. by simply hiring similar people, can they achieve the same ends by other means?
  • Is the firm so organised or can it be (including structures, systems, processes and culture) to effectively harness the talents of neuro-atypical people?

Dyslexia – the case of David Boies

Dyslexia is a good example of a neuro-atypicality that can be very productively harnessed. On the one hand, it is a particular torture for those so afflicted who select professions (like law) that require a great deal of reading. On the other, the brains of people who are dyslexic frequently compensate by developing other rare and extremely useful skills.

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent 2013 book ‘David and Goliath – Underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants’ contains a number of case studies that are relevant to neurodiversity in law firms. One of the most directly relevant concerns David Boies, chairman of the prominent New York City law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner. Boies’s brain compensated for his inability to read efficiently by developing extraordinarily amplified listening skills and memory:

“But he was devastating in the cross-examination of witnesses, because there was no nuance, no subtle evasion, no peculiar and telling choice of words that he would miss – and no stray comment or revealing admission from testimony an hour or a day or a week before that he would not have heard, registered, and remembered.”  (Gladwell 2013, p110).

Arguably one of the most accomplished trial lawyers in the world, Boies might have failed dismally as a corporate lawyer. I know several very senior and accomplished lawyers, who have distinguished themselves greatly in their careers, who are badly dyslexic. As it happens, dyslexia is frequently associated with brilliance in other areas, too. Roughly a third of successful entrepreneurs might be dyslexic, Sir Richard Branson being a very well-known example.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is another condition that can yield unanticipated benefits in the workplace if it is recognised, welcomed and properly harnessed. A relatively common childhood developmental disorder, ADHD is characterized by inattentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. These characteristics can persist into adulthood, although symptoms usually diminish and individuals tend to develop coping mechanisms.

While significant ADHD can have negative consequences for academic achievement, employment performance, and social relationships, clinical research indicates positive consequences such as enhanced creativity and ideating. Indeed, ADHD might be difficult to diagnose at least partly because people with ADHD share characteristics such as high energy and creativity, with gifted, non-ADHD individuals (Leroux & Levitt-Perlman, 2000).

Relevant to strategizing and innovation, ADHD can have opposite impacts on two aspects of creativity: convergent thinking and divergent thinking (White & Shah 2006). Before progressing, though, it is important to remind that no two people are the same, that characteristics vary broadly between them, and that coping mechanisms that people develop also differ widely. A statement commencing, for instance: “ADHD people are ….” is very likely to be wrong in its application to a particular person.

Convergent thinking means the ability to form associations between disparate concepts. Given their challenges in focusing for long enough to make all the correct connections to reveal the best solution, individuals with ADHD might be less successful as a group at this form of thinking. Such challenges can be explained by lower levels of ‘executive function’ (EF), most commonly described as a combination of response inhibition, updating and monitoring of working memory, and mental set shifting (Daucourt et al 2018). ‘Inhibition’ in the context of decision-making,

EF means the ability to obstruct inappropriate automatic or dominant responses. Leaping, one might say, to premature conclusions. ‘Updating Working Memory’ means screening incoming information based on its immediate significance, constantly eliminating irrelevant information and replacing it with more relevant information. It also represents our cognitive capacity for simultaneous processing of multiple tasks. ‘Mental set shifting’ involves back and forth movement between tasks and higher and lower levels of mental processing. It enables us to adapt dynamically to changing task demands and contexts.

One might easily imagine how important convergent thinking is to detailed and complex business planning, or mapping out implementation of a complex new process as in digital transformation, or in assessing the legal implications of a massively complex transaction.

Divergent thinking, on the other hand, means the ability to rapidly generate multiple ideas or solutions to a problem – including perhaps viable (or even exceptional) solutions that might have been ‘screened out’ by individuals whose bias is in favour of convergent thinking. Individuals with ADHD typically outperform the general population in divergent thinking.

However, they can also exhibit poor verbal fluency, especially when the task involved is complex or pressured, which means that their ideas might not emerge if the process in which they are participating is not carefully facilitated.

The relevance of this is obvious to brainstorms, design-thinking sprints and other idea-generating processes now common in many firms. In leadership teams too, the one with the highest-potential idea might remain silent in the cut-and-thrust of debate typical of many high-performance meetings.

Somewhat surprisingly given their supposed challenges with convergent thinking and a tendency to be distracted, another ‘superpower’ frequently observed in adult ADHD’s is that of hyperfocus. That is, a state of heightened, focused attention which, at an extreme, can even resemble ’hypnotic spells’ (Brown 2006).

A recently-developed ‘Adult Hyperfocus Questionnaire’ assessment tool (Hupfeld et al. 2018) shows that hyperfocus is indeed more prevalent amongst individuals with ADHD than amongst ‘neurotypical’ adults. Furthermore, it found that greater severity of ADHD symptoms was associated with higher ability to hyperfocus.

One might easily imagine how powerful the combination would be of individuals with a bias towards convergent thinking mixed with those with a bias towards divergent thinking. To harness this properly when working with or in a group to solve the complex problems that strategizing usually involves, it is necessary to separate the creative and decision-making stages of the process.

During the former stage, the divergent thinkers typically lead, and convergent thinkers have to work hard not to kill creativity by swinging into critical-analytical assessment of each idea as it emerges. During the latter, the focus is on assessing the ideas that have emerged and deciding which are worthy of implementation and investment.

Neurodiversity in the broader context of firm-wide strategizing

Business strategy is a relatively new concept in business science. It dates only from the 1960s. Back then, strategy usually took the form of a secret plan. Henry Minzberg’s book ‘The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning’, published in 1994, showed why this fails. Even today, many strategy failures can be blamed on mistakes that Mintzberg identified. Yet firms continue to make them.

Today, we know that a radically different approach delivers better results. Best practice means strategy developed through processes that are as open, inclusive and transparent as possible. These need to draw wide-ranging and diverse stakeholder groups into identifying and assessing opportunities and challenges, and then into finding the best options to address these.

After being so deeply involved in developing the strategy, people can easily apply it to their own roles in the firm. Implementation is much more effective. People are well equipped to suggest action to fine-tune as this becomes necessary. Which, in a ‘VUCA’ world, is usually sooner rather than later.

Not only does this mean that cognitive diversity is useful for purposes of inclusion, employee engagement and as an aid to implementation generally, but the same arguments apply as were advanced earlier for applying neurodiversity thoughtfully as a means to enhance the quality of teams specifically tasked with strategy, innovation and complex problem-solving.

Digital tools that have emerged over the past twenty years  are becoming far more common, and less expensive, and more effective. IBM ‘Jams’ is the original archetype of such tools, and one still in use today. Many of the practical arguments that have been traditionally applied to a firm NOT being open, inclusive and transparent in its strategizing have lost validity and, in most cases, been completely discredited.

This approach negates three serious shortcomings of previous approaches, namely failure to create strategy that aligns with realities across the firm and externally of which the firm leadership is not fully aware, partners and employees failing to engage with and ‘buy into’ the strategy, and for people to know what they need to do, each in their own roles, to contribute best to achieving the firm’s strategic objectives.

Conclusions

The need for neurodiversity as part of a firm’s commitment to equality is clear. It is simply the right thing to do. Deeper rationales also exist, though. Properly harnessed, it can help create sustainable competitive advantage for the firm.

With the addition of competence-based trust, cognitive diversity benefits complex decision-making processes such as is involved in strategizing, innovation and complex problem solving. It enhances understanding, commitment and the quality of decisions that are made. Team members must be able to disagree, perhaps robustly, without damaging inter-personal relationship conflicts emerging.

Competence-based trust is crucial for this to be achieved. Given its complex preconditions, developing this amongst team members must be proactively addressed before the team will be able to function properly. Leaders also need to watch for issues that emerge that can harm that competence-based trust.

Some neuro-atypical attributes and skills are highly relevant to tasks involved in strategizing, especially those that require creativity, hyperfocus and reaching novel solutions to VUCA situations. Neurodiversity is however not the only form of diversity that delivers cognitive diversity. Firm leaders should therefore view cognitive diversity holistically when incorporating it into teams and designing the processes through which those teams do their work.

Neurodiversity aligns also with the most up-to-date, progressive thinking about strategy – namely that the best strategizing processes are deeply inclusive, open and transparent. It follows that strategizing processes need to be not only accessible to as broad and cognitively diverse a range of the firm’s stakeholders as possible, but proactively welcoming of them and designed to actively encourage their participation.

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