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Great Minds Don’t Think Alike
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Creativity

Great Minds Don’t Think Alike

If we aren’t working with people who think differently to us, we’ll all lose out.
By Arielle Domb
19th Jul 2021

“Great minds think alike,” the saying goes. Or does it?

Somewhere along the way, the latter half of the proverb dropped into the ether. “Great minds think alike, though fools seldom differ.” 

Our collective misremembering speaks volumes. Quick to spot greatness when it reminds us of ourselves, we trip up in the glare of our own reflection— dismissing difference and ignoring nuance. 

When we rebuild the proverb, we are provided with a new narrative. What if it is difference, not sameness, that makes us thrive? 

Many of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs, creatives and thinkers certainly feel this way. Asked whether he would get rid of his ADHD if he could, JetBlue founder David Neeleman commented—“I’m afraid of taking drugs once, blowing a circuit, and then being like the rest of you”.

Greta Thunberg describes being autistic as a “superpower”, while Jamie Oliver describes being dyslexic as a “gift”—enabling him to put together flavours and concepts in his head. “I can 85% smell it and almost taste it, I’m normally about right”, he told Jessie Ware on the Table Manners podcast.

So why are we so slow to catch on? Why are we still encouraging groupthink and conformity, rather than embracing the ways in which we diverge from one another?

Seeing differently

Coined in the 90s by the Australian sociologist Judy Singer, the term “neurodivergent” describes someone who thinks differently from the majority of society (“neurotypical”). According to ACAS, one in seven people are neurodivergent, with conditions such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. 

While there have been large movements championing racial and gender equality in the workplace, when it comes to neurodiversity, there is still a long way to go. A study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that only one in seven organisations considered neurodiversity in their people management practices.

The root of this miscalculation lies beyond the boardroom. From early education, cognitive differences are frequently framed as learning disabilities, despite the fact that many of the individuals themselves don’t find them disabling. Dyslexia, for example, is linked to a dazzling range of creative skills, including an enhanced ability to visualise.

“I feel like I’m always analysing,” reflects Finn, a product photographer for a packaging and branding studio in London, who is dyslexic. “I see photos that I’d like to take. I see grids everywhere and ways to create a composition.” 

Dyslexia is also linked to an improvement in 3D thinking. Hugo, a video journalist for a multinational manufacturing company, who is also dyslexic, finds he is able to viscerally experiment with a proposal in his mind, before putting pen to paper.

“From the jump when we’re brainstorming ideas I know what’s going to work and what isn’t,” he explains. “Like, if we put this text over this background, the shot is going to be too busy, so we need to come up with another way to make the text pop.”

This goes back as long as he can remember. While his classmates were drawing stick men with square T-shirts, Hugo would concentrate on texture and depth – sketching the contours and ripples in the fabric. In the backseat of his parents’ car, he would dream up music videos, transported into the world of whatever was playing from the radio. 

“Multiple times in the day I’ll daydream videos, or there’d be some sort of stimulus, like a song, and then instantly I can play out a video in my head, and it’s all edited and styled on the spot.” 

These cognitive differences are frequently framed as learning disabilities, despite the fact that many of the individuals themselves don’t find them disabling.

But dyslexia does not just benefit jobs which are traditionally creative. The UK spy agency, GCHQ, actively recruits dyslexic individuals, due to their excellent ability to sift through large amounts of data and spot patterns. 

 “We’re looking for people who can see something that’s out of place in a bigger picture, who have good visual awareness and can spot anomalies,” said Jo Cavan, the director of strategy, policy and engagement. “A lot of dyslexic colleagues have those strengths.”

Pattern-recognition is beneficial to a whole range of jobs. In one study, conducted by the American Astronomical Society, it was revealed that dyslexic astrophysicists were better at identifying black holes than their non-dyslexic counterparts.

Georgia*, an insurance broker at a multinational professional services firm, regularly harnesses her dyslexia for day to day tasks. On one occasion, a major insurer had renewed their policy and she was asked to make a spreadsheet, identifying any changes in wording. 

“[The team leader] thought it would take me 3 days and it took me 30 minutes,” she exclaims. What is often a frustrating part of dyslexia – getting distracted by the blank space between letters – was actually an advantage. “It was really a picture based task instead of reading. It’s like the spot the difference. I could even see when there was just a word count difference or a slight rearranging.”

Reframing difference

But for Charlotte Barry, and many other dyslexic adults, this wasn’t always the case. Now a child interactive designer specialising in dyslexic design, Charlotte feels adamant that we need to change the way we teach in order to empower dyslexic students. 

“Our brain doesn’t go from A to B, it goes from A to J then J to D. There’s so many ways this can benefit you. But the educational system hasn’t been designed to make it an advantage to children.”

1/7
People are neurodivergent.
1/7
Organisations consider neurodiversity in their people management practices.

“Our brain doesn’t go from A to B, it goes from A to J then J to D. There’s so many ways this can benefit you. But the educational system hasn’t been designed to make it an advantage to children.”

In the homogenised school system – with rigid syllabuses and standardised examinations – neurodivergent pupils are made to feel as if they are constantly failing. Charlotte shares experiences of feeling stressed and stuck, as if her brain wasn’t working. “You fall under the radar and you’re made to feel slow or stupid.”

But dyslexic people are not slow – quite the contrary. The dyslexic mind visually processes information anywhere from 400 to 2,000 times quicker than the average person. This visual processing is so fast, however, that it can cause individuals to stumble over words or not finish sentences, as they try to capture the rapid chain of images in their mind.

“I think that’s my big gripe. That you’re presented as unacademic, and that you’re somehow a problem for teachers as well,” Sophie, a dyspraxic and dyslexic academic explains. “That’s a myth: you’re not a problem to teach, there’s a problem with the educational system which is fundamentally discriminatory.”

When it comes to academic thinking, Sophie finds that her dyslexia can be an advantage, allowing her to think outside the box. “When you work in academia, you’re really at an advantage. You’re constantly being asked to think in these alternate ways, using new frameworks and models, creating new ways of learning, new ways of teaching.”

This is certainly the case for secondary school teacher Eliza, who has dyspraxia. Knowing from her own experiences that she learns through some methods better than others, she is constantly finding creative ways to teach her class. In a history lesson, she’d get the students to physically go up to a timeline and put things on it and take things off, stimulating a more kinaesthetic way of learning.

“I feel like in a lot of people’s minds, being dyslexic or dyspraxic often equates to being less competent. I think it would be really great to just explain it as a different way of approaching things or thinking, rather than something that’s a disability.

“I feel like in a lot of people’s minds, being dyslexic or dyspraxic often equates to being less competent. I think it would be really great to just explain it as a different way of approaching things or thinking, rather than something that’s a disability.”

The way in which we treat neurodiversity at school has grave implications for the future – just look at the number of people in prison who have dyslexia. A study conducted into Texas Prison Inmates in 2000 found that 80% of prison inmates in Texas are functionally illiterate, and 48% have dyslexia.

When we make children feel that they do not fit in, when we do not offer them the right support, children lose both confidence and interest in their studies. In other words, when we act as if being different is a disadvantage, it becomes so. It is our environments, not our brains, which are disabling.


Empowering individuals
“As employers, I don’t think we’ve cracked the ability to fully utilise people’s cognition.” says Chris Quickfall, CEO of Cognassist. The EdTech platform, designed to identify neurodiversity and provide personalised learner journeys, has supported over 85,000 learners and is one of the top 70 fastest growing tech companies in the UK.

“We’ve mapped 106,000 people’s brains now; 30,000 people that would have fallen through the net previously. They’ve gone all the way through education, they’ve come out to college apprenticeships, and it’s only then that someone said: did you know you think slightly differently? And this is what you can do about it.”

“As employers, I don’t think we’ve cracked the ability to fully utilize people’s cognition.”

The problem is, most corporate diversity and inclusion programs are not really focused on the benefits of cognitive diversity, and the ways in which this super power can be harnessed. The majority of offices lack any sort of personalisation to the needs of individual workers. 

Evan Benway, a jazz musician, was working in an open plan office at a tech company when it hit him. “There has to be a better way.” Perturbed by the standard soundscape of an office – “overly quiet, punctuated by speech or air conditioner” – he realised that the conditions of the modern workspaces are counterintuitively disabling effective work

Now, living in the Austrian Alps with his wife and daughter, he manages Moodsonic, redesigning soundscapes for offices with biophillic sound. “The key is to provide some options and some choice,” he explains. “I like the concept of sensory zones. Different spaces that people can go to; some might be more stimulating, others less stimulating.”

“There’s a great quote that a student gave us who is autistic. “He said – ‘we are freshwater fish in saltwater. If you put us in freshwater we will function just fine. If you put us in saltwater we’re going to struggle to survive’. And as a designer, that really hit me. Because most offices are saltwater. And we’re putting people in environments where they are just not set up for success. We have to do better.”

When we put people in the right environments, we enable them to be their best selves in the workplace, leading to company success. “There’s a great quote that a student gave us who is autistic,” Kay Sargent, Director of WorkPlace at the international architecture firm HOK relays. “He said – ‘we are freshwater fish in saltwater. If you put us in freshwater we will function just fine. If you put us in saltwater we’re going to struggle to survive’. And as a designer, that really hit me. Because most offices are saltwater. And we’re putting people in environments where they are just not set up for success. We have to do better.” 

Inclusive office design 

So how can organisations create work environments that are suitable for neurodivergent employees? “I think people overcomplicate things and it’s not over-complicated,” states Leyla Okhai, CEO and Founder of Diverse Minds UK Ltd. “Yes, there might be a bit of a knowledge gap. Yes, you might have to research. Yes, you might have to get an expert in. But fundamentally, a lot of it is common sense. Sadly, it’s not common practice.” 

“Yes, there might be a bit of a knowledge gap. Yes, you might have to research. Yes, you might have to get an expert in. But fundamentally, a lot of it is common sense. Sadly, it’s not common practice.”

Indeed, the US Job Accommodation Network found that 59% of reasonable adjustments – small changes in office structure or practice that facilitate better work – are completely free. Tiny changes like pulling down curtains during meetings or reducing visual clutter can make a huge difference to well-being, satisfaction and productivity.

What’s more, neuroinclusive design is beneficial for everyone. Couldn’t we all do better if we were given the option to sit somewhere that was well-suited to us? If we were able to choose between areas that were completely silent and others with natural sounds or conversation? If we had spaces allocated for collaborative work or independent work, conversation or relaxation?

We all have different tolerance to stimulation that affects our ability to work. “There’s no such thing as a flat cognitive profile. That’s what our data is showing us now,” says Louise Karwowski, Director of Education at Cognassist. “Everybody has spiky profiles to some extent. We all have strengths and weaknesses.”

“There’s no such thing as a flat cognitive profile. That’s what our data is showing us now. Everybody has spiky profiles to some extent. We all have strengths and weaknesses.”

“As a society that’s what we need to be focusing on,” she concludes. “Giving every person the potential to succeed in their own way, whatever that is.”

If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that we don’t have to do things because it is the way it has always been done. It’s exciting to think about a future in which employers actively embrace cognitive difference, and employees feel confident that their work environments will not just accommodate them, but empower them. 

As we face up to the turbulent, pressing issues of our time, we simply can’t afford to all be looking in the same direction. Diverse thinking will lead to diverse ideas and ultimately new solutions. Now is the time for us all to be thinking differently.

How can we make workplaces neuroinclusive?

  • Make your recruitment process accessible – many job descriptions include broad requirements such as “excellent communication skills” which are not actually essential for the job. To avoid screening out talented individuals, consider clearly distinguishing ‘must-have’ and ‘nice to have’ criteria. Employers can also offer different opportunities for assessment (rather than just interviews), such as trial days.
  • Give people choice – since every single individual has a different tolerance to stimulation, offer different options of places to work e.g. some areas that are completely silent with little visual distraction, others that are more visually stimulating and play natural sounds.
  • Treat employees as individuals – while neurodivergent individuals excel in certain areas, it’s also important to not group types of people together (i.e. “all autistic people are good at….”). Instead, it’s about focusing on employees on a human level: what are your individual strengths and weaknesses, and how can we make your workplace empower you as much as it possibly can?
  • Be empathetic – learning about cognitive diversity should help us become more tolerant of the fact that we all process information differently. If people in leadership positions are understanding of cognitive difference, they reduce employee stress and allow them to perform to the best of their ability.
  • Offer practical support – simple and completely free things like emailing presentations over to staff after meetings as a default can go a long way, enabling individuals to process information at their own rates. Working with a neurodivergent champion can help explore these options. 
  • Don’t try to alter individuals to fit your system; alter the system to empower individuals – rather than singling out neurodivergent employees, focus on making work better for everyone. Surveys asking what reasonable adjustments could be helpful e.g. quiet rooms, different lighting—can benefit individuals that don’t want to disclose or ask for accommodations in the workplace.

*Some names have been changed.

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