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Human labels and how they affect project benefits

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On the back of my last blog about neurodiversity in project management, I gave my interpretation of the term neurodiversity; and why it is critical that we consider the fact the people’s brains work differently; as part of project management.

This time I want to talk a bit about labels, and how we can draw comparisons between how people come to be diagnosed, or not, and how in project management we create our own labels which can lead to project complications due to assumptions and simplifications.

To recap, neurodiversity is the term used to explain that all of our brains work differently, as individual as a fingerprint. How we interact with the world, process information, are able to plan, our emotional responses, etc, are all affected by the wiring in our brain. There is no one right way to be wired, but society has been constructed to favour the majority, which creates barriers to those of us who think differently.

To have a diagnosis or what some see as a ‘label’ you need to meet certain diagnostic criteria – in more than one setting you need to have a number of divergences from the dominant neurological, cognitive and behavioural norms. The difficulty is that it’s not as simple as fitting in one box. I for example have a dyslexia and ADHD diagnosis, and that doesn’t mean that I may not also have autistic or dyspraxic elements, they are just not at a level that would result in a formal diagnosis.

In today’s workplace and society, the label becomes shorthand for others to prescribe what they assume I can and cannot do or what adjustments I may need instead of learning about me. As Amanda Kirby and Theo Smith say in their new book Neurodiversity at Work, the labels used only describes a part of who I am. Gender, my social background, past experiences and race also have bearing on how I navigate and interact with the world.

Within our projects today we often use labels to box stakeholders, as if each group is distinct in its characteristics, without considering the neuro and other diversity within the demographic. It is absolutely human to create order; to simplify the world around us, especially when there are many factors at play. Grouping helps us to sort information, create building blocks, make decisions and process a world of information into options and next steps.

What I have found when reviewing lessons learned from a project, is that often the assumptions about stakeholders, baked into a stereotype, has led the project to fail to deliver the full benefit. We therefore need to expand our understanding beyond the labels; until we design for human diversity, which includes the hidden differences such as neurodiversity, we will fail to deliver fully inclusive environments.

This is why I like the concept from the World Health Organisation introduced to me by Amanda Kirby in her paper about a person centred approach. The framework, called the International Classification of Disability, Functioning and Health (ICF), shows activity sitting in the middle, and the physical, cognitive, personal, social, environmental aspects all impacting the person’s ability to participate. By breaking down the activities that need to take place, we have greater clarity on what the potential obstacles are, and by ensuring you have input from a diverse ‘team’ or ‘stakeholder group’ you can, as a project professional, start to remove these barriers at design stages.

As project managers we must do as much as we can to be curious about the truth behind the labels, to see every human as being different and with equal rights to participate. When we do this, we start to create a more systematically inclusive environment, not just for those that are diagnosed but for all of us. With neurodiversity, the disabling factor is as much people’s unconscious bias towards the label as it is the environment that becomes disabling.

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