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Diversity can enhance innovation. A report by McKinsey and Company found that diversity 'fosters innovation and creativity through a greater variety of problem-solving approaches, perspectives, and ideas'. Academic research supports this notion, and has shown that diverse groups of people who are not expert in a topic often outperform experts.[1] Staff diversity has been linked with increased patenting, greater radical innovation, and higher income from innovation.[2]

Why might this be? It has been suggested that visible differences in characteristics such as age, sex, gender, race, religion and physical ability are proxies for the thing that, from an innovation perspective, really matters: differences in the way that people think.[3] Different viewpoints and varied cognitive behaviours mean that diverse teams think about problems in multiple ways, and hence are more likely to find an approach that works, while avoiding ‘groupthink’.

When compared to other characteristics, however, less work has been done to understand and include those with significant neurological differences.[4] This is beginning to change as an increasing number of organisations are recognising the value of a neurodiverse workforce – both in general and for innovation in particular.

How is neurodiversity being used as an innovation method?

Autism spokesperson Professor Temple Grandin has long argued that neurodiverse thinkers have been responsible for much innovation, as she puts it, ‘Some guy with high-functioning Asperger's developed the first stone spear; it wasn't developed by the social ones yakking around the campfire!’.[5]

Emerging evidence suggests that the inclusion of neurodivergent thinkers in the workforce can be a driver for innovation. A 2016 report for the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) on neurodiversity in the workplace suggested that neurodivergent employees offered various positive attributes including: creativity, high ability and consistency in tasks once mastered, and bringing a different perspective that could result in innovation and original solutions to problems.

Findings from neurodiversity-at-work programmes echo this too. Fuelled by their understanding that 'innovation comes from the edges', the German software multinational SAP pioneered neurodiversity in their hiring and support practices through what has been called the ‘Dandelion Principle’ back in 2013. This management approach is designed to 'harness more of the world’s talent, and to make organizations more innovative'.

It draws inspiration from the metaphor of traditional management approaches treating the workforce like a carefully cultivated lawn. But, rather than fixating on workforce uniformity, the Dandelion Principle presents managers with a new framework to recognise and draw on the unique strengths and attributes of neurodivergent employees – i.e. 'dandelions'.

An increasing number of organisations are recognising the value of a neurodiverse workforce – both in general and for innovation in particular.

SAP’s programme has now been rolled out to 24 locations across 12 countries, and has been used to recruit people in a variety of roles, including complex jobs in creative areas like software development, human resources and marketing.

Global co-leader of SAP’s Autism at Work Programme, Jose Velasco noted that many of the individuals hired through the programme have met or exceeded expectations. 'One hire recently published a successful product guide that was put online for SAP and generated a lot of traffic. Another was on a winning SAP hackathon team,' he says.

Based on the valuable contributions that these neurodiverse individuals are making to the workforce, SAP has announced that it plans to continue expanding the scheme to new locations. In line with global rates of autism, is now committed 'to have one per cent of its workforce represented by employees in the autism spectrum by the year 2020'.

Staff diversity has been linked with increased patenting, greater radical innovation, and higher income from innovation.

Ernst and Young (EY), one of the largest professional services firms in the world, piloted its own neurodiversity-at-work programme in 2016. After nine months they evaluated the pilot programme and found that: 'Quality, efficiency and productivity were comparable, but the neurodiverse employees excelled at innovation. In the first month, they identified process improvements that cut the time for technical training in half. They learned how to automate processes far faster than the neurotypical account professionals they trained with. They then used the resulting downtime to create training videos to help all professionals learn automation more quickly'.

Building on the success of pioneering programmes like these, neurodiversity is also being incorporated as a driver of innovation into the recruitment practices of the likes of Microsoft, Ford, Direct Line Group, Yahoo, and newer businesses like luxury fashion online retailer Farfetch.

Practical challenges

Effectively leveraging the innovation potential of neurodiversity in the workplace will require that employers recognise the true variability of neurodivergent people, and invest the time and resources needed to develop individualised, and strengths-based approaches to performance management.

Positions that are solitary, technical or require attention to detail will suit some but not every neurodivergent person, and positions should be tailored with each neurodivergent person’s strengths and particular needs and challenges in mind. There’s a saying amongst the autism community that, ‘If you’ve met one autistic person, then you’ve met one autistic person’.

Positions that are solitary, technical or require attention to detail will suit some but not every neurodivergent person, and positions should be tailored with each neurodivergent person’s strengths and particular needs and challenges in mind.

The future

A poll carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), a professional organisation for HR managers, found that one in 10 UK HR professionals say their organisation is now focusing on neurodiversity at work.

Indeed as Lucy Hobbs, Founder of The Future is ND and freelance Creative Director, has noted, 'Organisations will need to embrace this powerful workforce, and support their staff to thrive and not just survive, if they want to stay ahead of the game in this increasingly competitive market'.[6]

To date, neurodiversity has blazed a trail in the IT sector. Champions of workplace neurodiversity, like Hobbs, expect that we’ll be seeing more creative organisations and other sectors including neurodiversity in their HR policies over the next few years.

[1] Tetlock PE and Gardner D (2015) Superforecasting: the art and science of prediction. Crown Publishers, USA.

[2] Ali Mohammadi Anders Broström Chiara Franzoni (2017), ‘Workforce Composition and Innovation: How Diversity in Employees’ Ethnic and Educational Backgrounds Facilitates Firm‐Level Innovativeness’, Journal of Product Innovation Management, Volume34, Issue4 pp 406-426.

[3] Scott E. Page (2008) The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, Princeton University Press.

[4] According to the UK’s National Autistic Society, only 16 per cent of autistic adults are in full-time paid employment.

[5] Sutherland, A (2016) ‘Time to celebrate neurodiversity in the workplace’, Occupational Health and Wellbeing; Sutton Vol. 68, Iss. 11. Grandin has made various similar remarks since at least 2007.