#08, June 2021


Neurodiversity as a vector of creativity and innovation

Raccords talks with Marylène Ouellet, founding president of Braindlab, an ideation laboratory with a social mission: helping organizations increase their creative capacities by embracing neurodiversity.

A neurodiverse person herself, Marylène tells us about her work promoting the recognition and acceptance of neurodiverse people so that they may freely express their high creative potential for the benefit of organizations.

Marylène Ouellet, dans l'entretien de Raccords #08 sur le thème de la neurodiversité

Raccords: Innovation and creativity are highly coveted skills these days for any organization seeking to respond to complex problems or generally reinvigorate its ways of doing things. With your social enterprise, Braindlab, you offer services to encourage innovation. Why place neurodiversity at the heart of your approach to strengthening an organization’s capacity to innovate?

Marylène Ouellet: Innovation requires the generating of a great number of ideas which must be varied. To achieve this, we need to optimize group heterogeneity and divergent thinking. Neurodiverse people are superb generators of ideas. Due to their neurological functioning, they naturally gravitate toward decision tree reasoning and are thus able to generate ideas that lead quickly to the resolving of complex problems. Unlike neurotypicals, who think sequentially, certain neurodiverse profiles associate ideas using analogy, which can lead them to imagine solutions which are unexpected and innovative, even if they may also be riskier.

Here begins the challenge for neurodiverse people in integrating themselves into the work world. To give you an idea of their lived experience, let’s talk, for example, about giftedness. While organizations prefer conservative ways of doing things, high-potential neurodiverse workers stand out for their risk-taking, their insatiable desire to learn, and their great curiosity to understand—for a sustained creativity that is accompanied by a need for time and autonomy. Highly intuitive, they may clash with more pragmatic colleagues. Because they see many steps ahead, they may be disruptive by tackling topics far in advance of the thought process of the rest of their team. When they share their entrepreneurial vision with their superiors, they can be criticized for wanting to go outside the brief of their assignment. The reality is that the creative intelligence of the gifted, much like the high empathy of the hypersensitive or the boundless energy of people with ADHD, can be seen as an asset, but very often proves to be a burden when the individual is misunderstood, assumes the role of the black sheep, and fears losing his or her job.

This is why it’s Braindlab’s mission to change the way people look at neurodiversity—to make them understand that relational disorders are not eccentricities, but a different kind of neurological functioning. In order to fulfill their high creative potential, neurodiverse people need to grow in a caring environment in which they feel confident. Since inclusion is not about forcing the issue but simply about placing oneself in a collaborative approach of openness and welcome, my approach is naturally positive.

Raccords: How can we open up the full potential of neurodiverse people so that they can express themselves within an organization? What pitfalls do we need to avoid?

Marylène: To begin with, it’s going to be difficult to welcome neurodiversity without a paradigm shift. Many companies have a culture built on an old model where emotions have no place. They are repressed in the workplace and occasionally expressed later, in the private sphere. If organizations want to make progress on the inclusion of neurodiverse people, they must focus their efforts on changing their organizational culture, be it in their recruitment efforts, job description, or review process. One mistake to avoid would be to leave a neurodiverse employee in his or her sandbox without flexibility in the pursuit of his or her mission. Above all, a manager should not expect to compare the learning curve of a neurodiverse person with that of a neurotypical person. The indicators established in a performance-oriented culture need to be revised, even customized, to evaluate the individual as a human being within the organization. For example, one can measure authenticity on the basis of whether the person has the freedom to be himself or herself and is not forced to smooth out personality traits to fit a mould; or self-determination, which translates into the motivation to remain invested in one’s work environment, as opposed to wanting to flee from it.

We should specify that the embrace of neurodiversity requires a long-term commitment and an investment on the part of employers to move away from standardization. This may seem complicated, but it’s actually simple: It’s about taking the time to create a climate of trust, listening, and adopting a collaborative attitude. Flexibility is the key to recognizing differences, especially in the behaviour of neurodiverse people, in terms of their inconsistent performance and output, and also in terms of their needs. For example, a low-noise environment will be beneficial to gifted and hypersensitive individuals, and flexible work schedules will support the fluctuating energy levels of people with ADHD. Small changes, such as reducing the duration and frequency of nonessential meetings, are easy to implement and allow neurodiverse people to not burn up their energy unnecessarily and to feel acknowledged. Finally, a solution that allows them to express their full creative potential is intrapreneurship. Mobilizing their skills and passion in a project parallel to their professional activity can greatly accelerate the pace of innovation in an organization.

Raccords: We understand that raising awareness is necessary in order to bring about the embrace of neurodiversity. However, we know that some neurodiverse people spend a lot of energy masking the manifestations of their neurological differences. Others are unaware of their neurodivergence, and experience discomfort and stress without understanding precisely why. Still others come up against neuronormative filters during the job-selection process and simply aren’t hired. Are there resources that organizations can draw on to raise awareness of neurodiversity so that they can better recognize and understand it?

Marylène: Educating managers and human resource officers is absolutely essential in initiating a dialogue with neurodiverse people. But it is also the responsibility of neurodiverse people to get to know themselves and to define their own strengths and limitations. For everyone, this process is part of an empowerment process leading to better decision-making.

I’m inviting readers to learn more about neurodiversity. There are free online resources available. My blog posts on Braindlab, in which I enthusiastically share my experience and knowledge in this area, are part of this effort to demystify the challenges and opportunities related to different neurological functioning. Of course, there’s also the option of bringing in external resources, such as organizational psychologists, or making a more sustained commitment to training. Developmental coaching is an excellent solution for driving neuroinclusive best practices.

I have developed a conference that is an entry point to a more sustained training approach for the leadership and managers of an organization. In my opinion, it’s important to offer tools that allow us to understand neurodiverse people, to maintain the momentum of organizational transformation in this direction, and to attract, integrate, and retain neurodiverse talent. Managers who are equipped in this way will be able to act on several levels: They will support the blossoming of neurodiverse people. They will not place the burden of a potential dismissal on the rest of the team, which often has to assume the workload subsequently. They will also learn to better manage conflicts, and they will maintain their confidence in their ability to recruit without questioning themselves every time a neurodiverse employee leaves.

In the personalized approach that I favour, the consolidation of knowledge is essential. To do this, I have created a platform, accessible to all staff, that offers the possibility of working more freely within the company by breaking down silos and creating cohesion between teams to promote cocreation and problem-solving. Because collaboration between different neurological types leads to innovation and creativity, this space allows for the creation of winning duos—in other words, binomials of different but complementary people. By working together, they will learn from each other, become aware of their strengths and weaknesses (for example, organization for one, creativity for the other), and question their biases and what they have to offer so that they finally shed their prejudices about their neurodiverse colleagues. They will also point out each other’s blind spots in order to identify possible solutions to be developed in response to a mandate or a problem.

Raccords: Organizations certainly want to activate and propel creativity and innovation within their ranks, but are they ready to make room for the discomfort that such an approach involves?

Marylène: Certainly we are still in an old, very standardized management model from the industrial era, and companies are struggling to move beyond it. It’s true that abandoning standardization and moving towards personalizing the work experience is difficult. However, organizations today have no choice but to make changes. If conviction doesn’t push them to do so, the labour shortage the market is experiencing will. Available resources are becoming rarer and rarer, so it’s essential to take good care of them.

What’s more, the pandemic has accelerated an openness to questions about mental health. The subject isn’t new, but it has become central to corporate social responsibility. Let’s look at this unprecedented situation as an opportunity to initiate the changes that are necessary to bring about a more inclusive world of work!

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