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Neurodiversity in project management

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Firstly, I must state that this is my take on neurodiversity and represents my views on the beauty of thinking differently and its gift to project management. Second, that’s the whole concept in a nutshell – neurodiversity represents the fact that all of our brains are wired differently, as unique as a fingerprint.

In the world today we have designed our processes, infrastructure, technology and communications styles to fit only certain types of brains, sometimes referred to as ‘neurotypical’. The way we educate, socialise and work is based on how the majority of us cognitively function and process, i.e. learning, thinking, reasoning, decision making and more. For those with sensory processing or execution function differences, life is made challenging by trying to fit into a world not designed for us; resulting in us having to find ways to adapt in order to be accepted.

This leads me onto the awesomeness of having a wide range of neurodiverse project managers, including those who are neurodivergent. The fact that neurodivergent brains think differently means that often we approach projects through a variety of lenses.

Here are some things to understand about neurodivergent people:

  • We are unlikely to be pulled into group thinking
  • We may challenge assumptions
  • We will often want to understand the building blocks/basics, in order to create the whole picture in our minds
  • We are able to assimilate a range of data and process it in a way that we can communicate a narrative or vision for the rest of the team to get behind and deliver
  • Our skills sets are different dependant on the individual, but broadly are creative, resilient, curious, innovative, and strongly justice orientated.

Every neurodivergent person has experienced barriers and discrimination in some form. But as a project professional, you can provide the mandate to create a more systematic inclusive world - it is a challenge to relish. And this can go beyond the workplace, and project team. We can start to think about the actual projects we’re working on – do they consider neurodiversity?

As the lead for the Disability Network as Heathrow, I have chosen to be open about my ADHD and dyslexia. I believe it is important to demonstrate the strengths I have are because of my ADHD and dyslexia, not despite them. Being given the right conditions to work in is critical to bringing the best out of everyone.

To enable a more inclusive environment, I recommend:

  1. Creating a ‘curious and courageous space’ where more of your project team and colleagues feel they can be open about their cognitive differences. These may not have labels as Amanda Kirby says, “we all have spikey profiles”. A space like this allows you to create and encourage a systematically inclusive team that builds on each other’s ideas, harnessing each other’s strengths to create the most successful high-performing project team.
  2. Being kind. Acknowledge and accept that everyone is wired differently and no one way of doing and thinking is primary. This will allow people to thrive as they wont have to try and change their way of thinking, processing and communicating to fit in, and instead use all their energy to deliver creativity, innovation, analysis and conceptualisation.

Here are some ways to do this:

  • Provide information or questions prior to a meeting so people have time to process
  • Use captioning in teams calls so that people can be supported to retain focus and follow thread of conversation
  • Allow a cooling off period were people can return with queries after they’ve had time to process
  • Not restricting someone’s work, by correcting spellings in the moment, allowing them to flow their ideas and proof reading before official publication
  • Using mind mapping techniques for everyone to participate their ideas and innovations
  • Provide clear and concise actions so that everyone can confirm understanding
  • Avoid using jargon or metaphors for those that think literally
  • Allow movement breaks and encourage doodling (it actually helps concentration).

Further information:

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  1. Lynda Burns-Hussein
    Lynda Burns-Hussein 03 June 2021, 12:52 PM

    Jenny, thanks for writing this blog. I recognised many of my own traits and am delighted to see that the benefits of neurodivergence in project managment are starting to be recognised.

  2. Adrian Pyne
    Adrian Pyne 03 June 2021, 11:17 PM

    Thanks Jenny for expanding my scope of understanding of just what diversity can include, and reminding me of the contributions neurodiverse people can bring. I would only take a little issue regarding the examples of some things to understand about neurodivergent people. I recognise these traits in some people I know to be neurotypical. That said, chatting to a neuroscientist I do understand these traits may [a] tend to be more often combined and/or [b] heightened in neurodiverse people, and may exhibit themselves strongly. A VERY welcome addition to understanding Diversity and its benefits.