Episode 413 – The Neurodiversity Edge with Maureen Dunne

Maureen Dunne‘This is the moment to embrace authentic neurodiversity inclusion as a core organizational value. It isn’t the whole solution to anything, but it is part of the solution to nearly everything.’

As we hurtle towards the workplace of the future, where human and machine intelligence will interplay in ways we can’t yet fully imagine, one thing is clear: standard modes of thinking are becoming less valuable to organizations as algorithms become ever more efficient at replicating them. Nonlinear thinking, hyper focus, intuitive leaps and the ability to tolerate social discomfort and resist groupthink – attributes that have until now been under-valued and under-employed – will become more valuable as complements to AI. And that means that neurodivergent people will become ever more valuable within organizations. 

That’s the argument of Dr Maureen Dunne, cognitive scientist, neurodiversity expert and member of the neurodiversity community herself, and it’s also the topic of her new book. As well as making this case, she also shares her own neurodivergent approach to writing: an interdisciplinary, visuospatial ‘conceptual synaethesia’. 

A rich and extraordinary conversation, at every level. 

AUDIO

VIDEO

The Neurodiversity Edge site: www.theneurodiversityedge.com

Maureen’s site: www.maureendunne.com

Maureen on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/maureen-n-dunne-ph-d-a2609a45/

Alison on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/the-alison-jones/

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Substack: https://extraordinarybusinessbooks.substack.com/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Dr Maureen Dunne, who is a cognitive scientist, neurodiversity expert, global keynote speaker, board director and business leader, helping organisations build thriving cultures.

A member of the neurodiversity community herself, and a Rhodes Scholar, she’s the author of The Neurodiversity Edge: The essential guide to embracing autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other neurological differences for any organization.

So first of all, welcome Maureen, it’s really good to have you here.

Maureen Dunne: Thank you, Alison. Yes, I’m excited to be here.

Alison Jones: I was really struck, I mean I read it several times, by a sentence in your book, I’m just going to read it out and I just want to ask you a bit more about it. You said, ‘this is the moment to embrace authentic neurodiversity inclusion as a core organizational value. It isn’t the whole solution to anything, but it is part of the solution to nearly everything.’

Which is a cracking sentence, by the way. So, first of all, congratulations. Nicely put.

But just tell me a little bit more about what you mean by that.

Maureen Dunne: Sure. Yes. I mean, so I think obviously including all kinds of minds has always been really important. But we’re at this interesting point in history I believe, where on the one hand, there’s increasingly more awareness about neurodiversity. And we can explain in a minute exactly what that is and more details about that.

But at the same time, we’re at this critical point where things have already been, you know, changing due to technological advancements in AI and things are about to accelerate in a really big way. And I feel that a lot of organizational leaders are not prepared from the human resources side of these massive transformations that are underway.

And there’s been so many conversations, especially in the last year, about generative AI and robotics and what the future might look like. And there’s been so much focus on, okay, how as an organization, how can we integrate these technological advancements? What can we do, you know, to prepare for the technology side of things, but no one seems to be really understanding or talking about the human side of this equation and the human resources side.

And all the range of skill sets that maybe in the past have historically been sidelined, like nonlinear thinking or systems thinking, interdisciplinary thinking, pattern thinking, hyper focus. There’s lots of skill sets that inevitably overlap with neurodivergent or neurodistinct cognition and I think, I would also say that just there’s a lot of value as well in just including people that have different life experiences, that see things from different angles and different perspectives, but particularly in the AI age you know, there should be so much more of a focus in understanding that we’re at this point in history where a lot more cognitive work is going to be taken over by AI and machines. And what does that mean for us humans? And there’s been, the unemployment and underemployment rate for neurodivergent people is still unacceptably high. And yet, there is documented overlap with uncommon skills that would really complement neurotypical and AI modes of thinking really particularly well. And so I think it’s, you know, I brought that up in the book because I think it’s not been something that we’ve focused on and I think it’s incredibly important.

Alison Jones: It really made me think how, the way that you calibrate difference in the book as something that is now more valuable than ever before because standard modes of thinking, if you like, are increasingly turning algorithmic and we’ve got them covered. And actually that, as you say, the non linear, well, let’s lean into that question, when you’re talking about neurodiversity in the workplace.

I mean, we’ve touched on some of the skills there and the sort of non linear aspect of it, but what are the specific patterns. I mean, I’m guessing it’s quite a broad church, right?

Maureen Dunne: Yes, I mean, I think one of the things we all have to be mindful of is, you know, now the word neurodiversity is being used a lot, but , it’s a really broad umbrella, right, of different types of cognitive differences. And some people, you know, include all sorts of mental health and other differences too. So it’s a very, very broad umbrella, right?

So it’s not just autism or ADHD or dyslexia, even. It’s really about valuing how the different brains work, right? That there’s a richness and complexity to all human minds and we should embrace them all.

And, one of the other skill sets, I think, that really has been sidelined or hasn’t been fully appreciated in the past is just what I would call these intuitive leaps of creative insight, you know, things that aren’t derivative of like linear, logical patterns of thought, but connecting dots between very different experiences and different fields and coming up with new assumptions and foundations based on just connecting these dots that aren’t normally, so that’s, it’s also generally a nonlinear process, but that’s an example of the kind of thing that AI, you know, is outside of this sort of conceptual map, if you will, with AI.

Alison Jones: And you talk very much about the organizational benefits of embracing that. I mean, that really is what the purpose of this book is, isn’t it? It’s like, you know, this thing that you perhaps might be seeing as a tick box exercise. Yes, inclusion’s a nice thing to do, but can we afford it? You can’t afford not to.

So tell us a little bit about the organizational imperative.

Maureen Dunne: Yes, I mean, and you know, I think my book really tries to emphasize what I would call a values driven approach. And rather than yes, the tick the box approach of, okay, we need X number of people, you know, they’re autistic or have ADHD but just seeing each person for the richness and complexity that all humans are and the strengths and challenges, and then having a better understanding of the uncommon skills that may be overlooked, particularly in an interview process.

So I believe that there’s employers, you know, most employers, there’s the standard interview process does not capture a lot of the talent and skills that neurodivergent people have. And so also, you know, I bring up a lot of strategies for non traditional interviews and different ways that one may be better able to assess talent that could be a huge asset for their organization.

Alison Jones: I’ve often thought that interviews measure how good you are at interviews rather than how good you might be at the job.

Maureen Dunne: Yes and that’s one of the problems is right, it’s, you know, it ends up being many times a subjective process. And, you know, maybe a lot of people, hiring managers, without even realizing it, there is this instinctive bias to gravitate towards people that are like you, right. And you know, do you like this person?

And it could sometimes be very subjective and not really correlated to what the skills are that are required for that particular role. And so, you know, there’s a lot of, I think it’s one of the big reasons why the unemployment, underemployment rate is again unacceptably low.

We’re looking at 30 to 40 percent if we combine different neuro divergent typologies.

Alison Jones: It puts me in mind of Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas, where he talks about the research that shows that when you have people who think in a similar way, everybody has a really nice time. Like the group has a great discussion, they really enjoy it, everybody feels really positive, but they come up with really suboptimal outcomes, whereas if you have a more diverse group of people, the experience of decision making is harder and more uncomfortable, but the outcomes are massively better.

So in a sense, we’re asking quite a lot of managers, aren’t we? But it’s really, really clear what the prize is.

Maureen Dunne: Right, definitely. Yes and you know, I bring up a lot of case studies as well in the book that I hope will be helpful to employers to just better understand how to do this right. Right. And also just examples of case studies where things were not going well.

Alison Jones: Anti case studies.

Maureen Dunne: Yes.

Alison Jones: And you capture, I think, two of the really essential qualities of a good business book. It’s like, why does this matter? Give me the theory, give me the idea, but also what can I do about it? That has to have that practical element as well, doesn’t it?

Maureen Dunne: For sure.

Alison Jones: And I do want to talk to you about writing and particularly writing as a neurodiverse person.

And I know that you can only speak for yourself, as we’ve said, it’s a very broad church. Did you notice, do you notice, that you write differently to other people? Do you have strategies, tactics that help you tap into the associations or the nonlinear aspects of thinking perhaps?

Maureen Dunne: Yes. It’s an interesting question. I’m not networked in with a lot of writers actually. So I’m not sure how different my process is, but I will say that what I think has been really helpful for me is well, in addition to being hyperlexic and just in general reading a lot, so just constantly taking in lots of information.

So I’ve always been very interdisciplinary, right, in my interests. So I was able to bring in a lot of different topics that are, I think, useful for business leaders. But I think the conceptual synesthesia aspect where I can sort of, you know, in space around me, sort of place different ideas and, you know, sometimes it’s a combination of words or images and other times it’s more abstract than that, but I can kind of then move things around.

And so that helped me a lot with just coming up with the best structure, right? Which I think is, and the layout of the book and then I guess it ended up being a very non linear process, what you’re asking me, because I would write certain chapters and then later I maybe would, I don’t know, certain experiences would come to mind or case studies and then I would add them in, but I would always, I always had like the whole of the book in mind and can kind of move around places and move around ideas.

Alison Jones: I love that spatial idea that you’re actually almost located within the book. You can move around it. It’s sort of there located in your mental space. I mean, you called it synesthesia, but it feels more like a sort of spatial metaphor.

Maureen Dunne: Yes, I mean, for me, that type of synesthesia, I’m what you’d call a projector where I can project concepts in space. So ideas exist in space and I can sort of even sometimes if there’s just an experience or an intuition, it’s like I can pull it out of myself in a way and kind of just get more clarity about certain ideas and move them around obviously in my mind, but it’s like, it’s in space around me.

 So it is a very spatial, visual, spatial experience. And then, you know, I think too I guess I have a very rich, visual spatial memory as well. So a lot of the stories in the book, like the last chapter especially, when I talked about this experience with this mentor, this Oxford, Don, that ended up being a mentor to me. It was really helpful to kind of just replace some of these amazing experiences I’ve had and them being like the visual detail and then sort of capturing that in my writing as well. I really enjoyed that process a lot.

I do, I like writing a lot, so that was…

Alison Jones: …and that comes across, I think. That’s interesting.

Was there anything that you found frustrating about the process? And we can, let’s broaden this out the whole…

Maureen Dunne: yes,

Alison Jones: that’s just the first half…

Maureen Dunne: Absolutely, I sometimes can be a bit of a perfectionist, so it was good to work with a big publisher that had some pretty strict deadlines because, otherwise I could see myself just, you know, keep adding to it and wanting it to, you know, to keep improving it or making sure every detail like having, you know, it was a process I felt like it could just keep going on and on because I would keep finding some fault with something.

Alison Jones: And it does, many people keep their manuscript in the drawer and keep polishing it and polishing it and it never sees the light of day.

Maureen Dunne: That was hard to kind of like get to a point of, no, this is, no more changes, you know, this is the book. It could always, you’re always going to, you know, I think it’s probably common I’m guessing as an author, to feel like you could always do something better, but you’ve got to, you know, let go.

Alison Jones: Yes and it’s a funny thing, isn’t it, because while you’re writing it, it’s yours. It’s just you and the manuscript. It’s almost like quite an intimate thing. You spend a lot of time together and then suddenly you hand it over and it’s not yours anymore. There’s other people kind of crawling all over it and taking charge of it and writing marketing copy about it.

And, yes, how did that feel?

Maureen Dunne: Going to have their own interpretation or bring in their experiences to what’s said, right, which is just part of the process.

Alison Jones: So I guess when somebody is reading it, and this is the funny thing, isn’t it, because the book has a life of its own now. It’s its own thing and it’s going to make friends out there in the world. You know, what are you hoping for it?

Maureen Dunne: Well, my hope would be that it could make a positive impact in the world and actually make a difference in how neurodivergent people are seen, you know, where they’re, you know, it’s not just an interesting read. I mean, I hope people enjoy the book too, of course, but that it has an impact, right. That hiring managers will actually want to read it and have more conversations about, well, what can we do better and that will lead to decreasing that unemployment and underemployment rate in the community that is unacceptably high.

Alison Jones: Yes. And benefit the organizations as well.

Maureen Dunne: Absolutely and at the same time, right. Definitely a movement.

And, yes, for the organizations, I believe will be more competitive and will have people who think differently, there’s a number of studies I bring up, particularly about people, autistic people that are particularly less correlated with the social group and may be a hedge against group think, right?

And we know that a lot of the business and government organizational factors, a lot of them in the past have happened because a lot of times in strategy conversations, problem solving, could end up going in a particular direction because you just have one or two really dominant people in the conversation.

And it’s hard to sometimes go against a majority view and…

Alison Jones: it feels socially uncomfortable.

Maureen Dunne: Yes, having people in the room that are used to feeling socially uncomfortable, so it’s not anything new for them. And may as well just end up noticing things that other people haven’t noticed.

And especially, you know, I think where things are going in the future, where the competitive landscape is changing fast every day. It’s super important, I think, you know, for companies to embrace people that, you know, have… especially just different perceptual, analytical skills and are just coming from things from a very different worldview or life experience.

Alison Jones: Yes. And you make the case brilliantly. And I hadn’t made the connection with AI and how that actually just moves the goalposts, changes things and makes it even more important.

I always ask my guests, Maureen, for their best tip. There will be lots of people listening to this who may be neurodiverse, may be non linear thinkers, so I’m particularly thinking of them.

But just, you know, given where you are now, you’ve come to the end of your book writing journey and publication. I mean, it’s not the end because you still have to keep on selling the thing and working with it. I guess I’m asking, what do you wish you’d known at the start?

Maureen Dunne: At the start of writing?

Alison Jones: Yes, the start of the whole process. What’s your best tip for somebody who’s just on the journey now at the beginning?

Maureen Dunne: You have just got to keep writing. Like, I think since it was my first book, I’ve published a lot of articles. I had done my doctorate at Oxford, but this, you know, I think when you’re starting writing, you think like you’re just going to go from beginning to end and your first draft is going to be the book or something.

I mean, I don’t know how other people think of it, but I think I understand now that it is much more you know, that’s where you start and then there’s just this whole other process of revising and polishing and deleting things and to just, I guess, accept that as part of the process and that’s just going to make it a better book, right?

So I think you know I think that was, something that was interesting, and then also I think what was helpful, I guess if I could go back, because I ended up through the process just putting in a lot of things I didn’t think I was going to put in initially, like, you know, I get into Thomas Nagel, a philosopher, what is it like to be a bat, you know, and it’s like, well, what does that have to do with…

Yes, so you have to read the book. I’m trying to give a sense of proportion about neurodiversity, otherness, but, you know, things I didn’t anticipate I would be bringing in, like anthropology and philosophy to make some of these points for how organizations and business leaders can do things better and be more competitive.

And I think if I could, you know, would go back, I would maybe have spent a little bit more time, I don’t know, sort of doing a roadmap that included some of those, you know, just broadening. So I think I started out where it was more narrow and then I just, being non linear myself, I allowed myself the sort of freedom to kind of add in lots of things and then went back and sculpted it.

But I think now that I’ve gone through that process, I probably would start out with like a lot of, rather than just relying on everything in my head, I would probably try to look back to old notes that I had, or maybe broaden up the scope of things with note cards.

And that might’ve made it a little bit faster of a process, I suppose, or at least, easier of a process.

Alison Jones: It’s a lovely thought, isn’t it? It’s almost like you’re, I mean, the metaphor that’s coming to mind is a tapestry and you’re sort of drawing in more and more colours and different textures. And it’s, you thought it was going to be quite a straightforward, simple thing, but actually what brings in the interest are those slightly left field examples and that interdisciplinary stuff.

And you’re right…

Maureen Dunne: …for me too, I get bored easily, so I’m like, it needs to be interesting for people to want, you know, even if people are interested in the topic, right? Like a lot, especially a lot of business leaders don’t have a lot of time on their hands either. So I think it’s helpful if it’s enjoyable, so I at least tried to also, you know, make my points in a way that I thought would be interesting and memorable.

Alison Jones: And that’s so important because it’s very easy for a business book to turn into direction and just telling, and that kind of colour, think, saves it. As you say, it makes it more interesting, makes it more memorable, just stops the kind of frictionless passing through of more information to your brain.

Maureen Dunne: Right. I also thought it was important that people could come to their own conclusions, so that I’m not, you know saying this is what you must do, but just guiding people down a path where they could come to their own conclusions but give them the information to get there.

Alison Jones: In fiction, they call this showing, not telling. It’s a really, really important kind of writer’s trait.

And I’m going to ask you as well for a recommendation for a book. It doesn’t have to be a business book, but what book would you recommend that people who are listening should read if they haven’t already?

Maureen Dunne: One book I really enjoyed that I read a couple of years ago was Think Again by Adam Grant. Because I thought, to me too, it kind of fits in with a lot of the points I’m making too with hiring managers, the way that, you know, as we talked about how interviews are done or sometimes just initial biases and assumptions that get made aren’t necessarily the most correct path.

So I enjoyed that book a lot. I would recommend it.

Alison Jones: Yes. And he writes so well, doesn’t he? It’s such a pleasure to read. Yes. Brilliant.

So if people want to find out more about you, more about The Neurodiversity Edge, Maureen, where should they go?

Maureen Dunne: They could go to my book website, which is www.theneurodiversityedge.com. Or you could go to my personal website as well to find out a little bit more about me, which is just www.maureendunne.com.

Alison Jones: Amazing. And I’ll put those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com if you’re happen to be driving and you haven’t got a pen and paper to hand or anything.

So, it’s been just really fascinating talking to you. I enjoyed the book and I’ve enjoyed this conversation. Thank you so much for the insights.

Maureen Dunne: Thanks. Thank you so much. This was great. I enjoyed it myself.

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