10 minute read 13 Oct 2020
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What happens when great minds don’t think alike?

By Hiren Shukla

EY Global and Americas Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence Leader

Exponential innovator. Community transformation. Inspired by the women in my life. Proud refugee who is trained for optimism.

Contributors
10 minute read 13 Oct 2020

Meet the challenges of a rapidly increasing, complex world where thinking and teaming are rapidly accelerating.

Imagine a world in which the combination of converging technologies, and the power of truly diverse, multidisciplinary teams, is harnessed to transform business, academia and governments. Imagine transformation and purpose intersecting to build the curiosity, agility and resiliency needed to thrive in this new world. What you have created is a unique moment in time for organizations to differentiate and activate the exponential power of neurodiversity by creating inclusive, high-performance teams.  The opportunity to access, integrate and energize your organization and its stakeholders is here!

We’re living in an era of increasing change and ambiguity. While we don’t know what the post-pandemic world will look like, the sheer force of disruption from the COVID-19 crisis has been dramatic, from rapid digital transformation to exposing underlying structural inequities. However, one thing is certain; organizations will need to continue to focus on the value and importance of transformation if they want to thrive in the present and be agile in the future state. Key to this is the core idea of value creation based around a triad of humans at center, technology at speed and innovation at scale. By undertaking the journey of incorporating and curating cognitive differences into their teaming models, organizations are positioning themselves to solve transformation challenges directly. The ability to simultaneously imagine and realize new solutions with emerging technology and the power of data will determine organizational value and longevity.

As the pandemic continues to disrupt the way we live, work and connect with each other, the old command-and-control hierarchy with rigid team structures and functional silos gives way to more agile, team-focused ecosystems that operate as a distributed network. These ecosystems are redefining the importance of multidisciplinary teams that are adept at transformative thinking. Single or sporadic adaptations will not be enough to deliver this future. Diverse, multidisciplinary teams must be prepared to continuously flex, coming together to embrace the digital and emerging technology angles of transformation and leveraging the talents of all employees, to meet new challenges. As we’ve seen companies pivot to manufacture personal protective equipment or adopt new business models in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, business leaders also have an opportunity to use this moment to recast talent models to be more agile and resilient.

Organizations whose workforces include the full dimension of diverse perspectives and talented people with technical skills gain competitive advantage. Leaders must examine how they harness the power of their people and quickly upskill them as new talent needs emerge. Neurodiversity is a crucial part of rethinking the “who and how” of agility as business leaders rise to meet a rapidly changing market and society.

Embracing diversity of thought

Leaders must seek new ways of approaching their business to not only better serve their customers, but also stay ahead of the competition.

Research shows that diverse perspectives drive better business outcomes, and that when people feel a sense of belonging at work, they are more creative, healthier and more engaged. However, diverse perspectives alone are not enough — rather, it is the application and integration of diversity that truly unlock value. This is especially true with neurodivergent individuals who help organizations meet the demand for innovation. As a result, these organizations are better positioned to excel in areas key to future success and with strong organizational muscle for transformation, especially when it comes to:

  • Analytical thinking and innovation
  • Reason, complex problem-solving and ideation
  • Technology design and programming
  • Creativity, originality and initiative

Research shows that approximately 15% to 20% of the world’s population is neurodivergent (e.g., those with autism, Asperger’s, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia). This rich, untapped talent pool in each of our communities is impacted by an unemployment/underemployment rate around 85%. Interestingly, as the world and business problems have become increasingly ambiguous and complex, neurodivergent individuals have struggled to fit into traditional profiles sought by employers, which are becoming less relevant every day.¹ The lack of employment is not only harmful to the well-being of the neurodivergent community, but also results in a major lack of knowledge for organizations, particularly around areas such as technology and data science where there is a tremendous need for skilled workers in artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and advanced analytics.

The combination of neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals builds an integrated, multidisciplinary, transformational team with diverse perspectives and agility required to diagnose and solve complex challenges, as well as imagine and realize future-focused solutions. Companies have found that a deliberate orchestration to incorporate neurodiversity brings performance improvements: productivity gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovation and ingenuity, and across-the-board improvements in employee engagement.² This is exponential value that can only be generated by exponential exceptional teams.

Neurodivergent and neurotypical professionals create transformational teams

Teams with members who think differently will bring different approaches and perspectives, and leverage the power of converging technologies necessary for organizations to reach the full potential of value for their stakeholders. Truly diverse teams incorporate a neurodivergent perspective, which has traditionally been missing. This talent and teaming innovation model provides the power of cognitive differences required for companies to better engage with stakeholders, such as government and academia, while galvanizing their employees to improve internal processes and infrastructure, and strengthen the culture of innovation. These contributions enhance workforce ability and accelerate technology processes and solutions — such as intelligent automation, blockchain, cybersecurity, cloud optimization, true data science and analytics.

Imagine an organization that is able to transform society in a way that would simultaneously impact individuals and families, employees and leaders, vendors and partners, and academia and government. This is a unique time for organizations to differentiate, significantly increasing value across five dimensions:

  • 1. Collaborate with problem solvers to co-create breakthrough innovations and experiences.

    Case study: neurodiverse teams driving digital transformation. Manufacturing companies rely on connected infrastructure to keep operations running. The technology that underpins these operations is critical for businesses to stay resilient against threats. With cyber risks posing a bigger threat to production cycles, supply chains and company financials, one manufacturing company needed to take its assessments to another level. Our Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence (NCoE), in close collaboration with the company’s cybersecurity team, accelerated efforts to build a solution to identify risks for connected critical infrastructure. By thinking through digital transformations, enabled by the capabilities of our NCoE, the team developed a Risk Vulnerability Solution for operational technology. This Solution helps to drive value for EY clients and enables them to create strategies and even develop return on investment (ROI) within cyber, all thanks to transformative thinking and teaming with the EY NCoE.

  • 2. Be part of a thriving community that includes academia, pioneering companies and government to collaborate and scale the workforce innovations that our future economy requires.

    Case study: neurodiversity activating purpose and value creation. Vanderbilt University received a $10 million gift to endow a new center, The Frist Center for Autism and Innovation, in its School of Engineering, focused on supporting and developing the neurodivergent talents of individuals with autism. The goal for Vanderbilt was to leverage academic and commercial research along with business innovation to better understand the capabilities of neurodivergent people and enhance workforce through the creation of neurodivergent teams. Vanderbilt is teaming with stakeholders from the community, including local government, businesses and nonprofit groups, to create a neurodiversity initiative that invents and commercializes new technologies that help to both improve quality of life and enhance the bottom line for businesses. This dedication by Vanderbilt has led not only to an increased diversity-and-inclusion (D&I) commitment, but also to workforce transformation initiatives that can be adopted by other organizations that are looking to create a purpose for themselves and help drive value creation. One such organization that has taken notice of the work being done at Vanderbilt’s The Frist Center for Autism and Innovation is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA was so impressed by the advanced data visualization software created by staff programmer Dan Burger (named Filtergraph) that it licensed the software for use in its own sponsored research. Today, Filtergraph, which is a novel, web-based platform for scientific discovery through human visualization of complex datasets, is free for noncommercial use and currently has some 1,000 registered users in more than 20 countries.

  • 3. Apply neurodiverse thinking to critical business challenges and accelerate experimentation and rapid prototyping of new ideas.

    Case study: harnessing the power of neurodiversity to enable a data analytics focus. The amount of data that businesses collect and maintain is immense and ever-growing. A leading telecommunications provider, for example, had massive amounts of unstructured procurement data in the form of purchase orders, memos and emails, and needed to locate specific information for an opportunity to qualify for a particular tax exemption. Utilizing the artificial intelligence focus of the EY NCoE, our team built a neural network learning algorithm — with a 94% accuracy rate — to identify patterns and find the required information, saving hundreds of hours and producing tremendous value.

  • 4. Participate in new ways of working by embracing societal realities of constant change and other potential business disruption (e.g., future pandemics, terrorist attacks); build agility, resiliency and future-focused leadership muscle.

    Case study: transformative thinking that accelerates around the power of neurodiversity. When the COVID-19 crisis began in earnest around the world, many organizations were forced rethink and reimagine their businesses and services almost overnight. In the early days of the crisis, our NCoE team created a digital platform to monitor the rapidly changing impact of the pandemic on clients and ongoing engagements — our COVID-19 Client Engagement Impact tool. Up and running in just four days, this tool enabled savings of $350 million and captured the data to help us continuously forecast by documenting the details required for multiple views. 

  • 5. Being different is a valued core attribute of company brand and purpose.

    Case study: intelligent innovation facilitated through neurodiversity. Teams that embody diversity across gender, ethnicity, geography and cognition produce more well-rounded end products and richer experiences. To that end, our blockchain group assembled a diverse team to tackle a complex project helping an international finance group to track its flow of funds to communities in need around the globe, such as a fiscally strained West African hospital that needed to purchase pressure valves for its ventilators. Working remotely during the pandemic, our NCoE was closely aligned with the team, and in concert they created a user interface for the full stack web application for the front end of a multi-tool digital platform that allowed the client to seamlessly implement this highly complex solution. The response was so positive that the blockchain group is now showcasing this work to other clients in public finance. 

Closing the gap between divergent thinking styles requires a cultural shift throughout an organization. Instead of focusing on the perceived deficits of neurodivergent individuals — such as difficulty making eye contact, sensory or social challenges and how they fit into the traditional/outdated models of teaming — organizations need to think about how they can widen their perspectives to embrace diversity of thought. By bridging that gap, leaders are well-prepared for the future and better able to meet the next challenge through deliberate neurodiverse teaming.

Neurodiversity-powered transformation – how business leaders can build the organization’s agility and resiliency

A workforce with diversity of thought means many voices and ideas. And this multitude of perspectives includes fewer echo chambers and more innovative ideas from people who brainstorm, problem-solve, evaluate and strategize in a variety of ways. In short, it’s building a transformation mindset. The table below showcases how neurodiversity can help organizations realize this transformation.

Typical failure points
Transformation realized
Lack a transformation story
Fail to create a compelling reason for people to go above and beyond
Create a compelling story framed in the future
Inspire, inform and convince the organization that we are on the right path
Allow the organization to lose belief
Fail to sustain motivation, inspiration and energy over time
Stimulate belief by revisiting assumptions regularly
Test the assumptions and vision to adjust direction and maintain momentum
Work toward a set of static capabilities
Fail to invest in the ability to navigate “high rate of change” environments
Work toward a dynamic state
Recognize that the purpose of transformation is to become transformative
Rely on functional experts who’ve done it before
Fail to innovate and test your assumptions from every angle
Embrace diversity to challenge the status quo
Embed cross-functional, multidisciplinary and neurodiverse perspectives
Focus on activities over outcomes
 Fail deliver the right outcome because of a process or timeline
Balance agility and flexibility to drive outcomes
Use agile methods to balance the plan with the organizational and operational reality

 

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Accelerating talent and technology with the power of neurodiversity

In this webcast, panelists discuss an approach to utilizing neurodivergent professionals to accelerate emerging technologies and tackle complex problems.

 

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So, how does a leader build agility and resiliency with neurodiversity in mind? By tapping into an organization’s purpose and focusing on the long-term value of a business — the dimensions of human, consumer, societal and financial — leaders can hone in on the levers needed to drive change and prioritize the most strategic problems. In each phase listed below, the transformative potential grows. There are six steps on the journey:

  1. Build a foundation. Establish new talent models and the ability to attract neurodivergent talent.
  2. Pilot. Incubate and develop talent to deliberately incorporate neurodivergent resources to drive diverse perspectives.
  3. Integrate technology and innovation. Source meaningful projects by appropriately matching skills with work.
  4. Socialize ROI and scale. Access diverse thinking, cutting-edge technology and skills to solve complex problems. Actively promote and invite others (neurotypicals) to contribute to the success of truly diverse, multidisciplinary teams.
  5. Apply transformative thinking across the enterprise. Accelerate new business models and rapid prototyping for solution exploration. Allow for experimentation and departure from traditional business process
  6. Create and influence the external ecosystem. Empower transformational leadership, strengthen networks and positive societal branding across all stakeholders to build long-term value

Companies need to create an inclusive environment that embraces a wide range of thinking styles.

In this transformative age, the core of value creation is the triad of technology at speed, innovation at scale and humans at center. Companies that don’t drive a deliberate sense of inclusion and belonging, including diversity of thought, will fall behind. Strategically matching future-focused data and technology needs to untapped neurodivergent talent produces significant business results, and this is not a philanthropic, CSR,³ or D&I or HR effort.

“Our goal is to broaden the way we think about talent, success and skills and backgrounds of individuals who can make a contribution to the EY mission,” says Kelly Grier, EY US Chair and Americas Managing Partner. “These neurodivergent colleagues have transformed our business in tremendous ways —working on breakthrough innovations, improving our processes and boosting our efficiency for our clients,” she also noted.

Companies that embrace a workforce that includes neurodivergent talent, and build truly neurodiverse teams, have an opportunity to recognize individuals for their unique contributions and also gain competitive edge by increasing efficiency, productivity and innovation, all while promoting authentic brand capital by creating a spectrum of value to stakeholders. These are the components that produce exponential benefits to thrive!

  • Show article references

    “Untapped Talent: How To Attract Neurodiverse Candidates,” Forbes (May 5, 2020). 

    2 “Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage,” Harvard Business Review (May–June 2017). 

    ³ CSR means corporate social responsibility.

Summary

Organizations whose workforces include the full dimension of diverse perspectives and talented people with technical skills gain competitive advantage. Leaders must examine how they harness the power of their people and quickly upskill them as new talent needs emerge. Neurodiversity is a crucial part of rethinking the “who and how” of agility as business leaders rise to meet a rapidly changing market and society.

About this article

By Hiren Shukla

EY Global and Americas Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence Leader

Exponential innovator. Community transformation. Inspired by the women in my life. Proud refugee who is trained for optimism.

Contributors