In pursuit of innovation: Measuring the value of neurodiversity

Afua Basoah
17 April 2018
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In the lead-up to their 350th anniversary, we have been working with a Fortune 500 science and technology company in identifying drivers of organizational innovation—the fuel that powers corporate growth strategy in highly competitive markets. The client wanted to know how to structure and support their workforce as they continue to adapt, navigate and innovate into the future. The research pointed to curiosity as a key driver of innovation within their firm.

Amid growing competition for talent, particularly within the health care space, there’s a need to develop approaches to attract and retain the brightest candidates. The ambition to create effective, dynamic, 21st century teams to drive and maintain corporate competitive advantage has led a growing number of organizations to search beyond narrow, conventional talent pools. Throwing their nets out in search of fresh thinking, these companies have been rethinking their HR processes to access neurodiverse talent.

Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome. This represents new and fundamentally different way of looking at conditions that were traditionally pathologized; it’s a viewpoint that is not universally accepted, though it is increasingly supported by science. These neurological differences include Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyscalculia, Autistic Spectrum, Tourette’s syndrome and others.  Many of these divergent thinkers possess valuable professional attributes — “superpowers,” such as high attention to detail, strong analytical skills, and a unique perspective in solving complex problems, that translate into a competitive advantage. People with Asperger’s syndrome or autism, for example, tend to think more literally and systematically, making them particularly adept at mathematics and pattern recognition – critical skills in creating or recognizing value.  Caution is required not to generalize the ability of all those with neurological differences. Not all autistic people are IT geniuses, but evidence shows that in the right role, and with the right support, an autistic person will significantly outperform a neurotypical person doing the same job.

Creative thinking within health research and development demands diversity of talents and perspectives

I recently presented at the first annual #DiverseMinds conference in London and the ‘Say Hello To Your Brain’ panel discussion held during  Advertising Week Europe, where I made the case that as a global health consultancy, a large part of the work we engage in at Rabin Martin involves helping our clients build leadership in health. Given the complex global health challenges that disproportionately impact underserved communities, there’s an urgent need for innovative thinking to find sustainable solutions.  Only 16% of UK adults with autism are in full-time employment and 77% of unemployed adults with autism wanting to work, [i]  indicating untapped potential to bring completely new perspectives, ideas and solutions to support corporate innovation.

Our parent company, Omnicom, has also documented a shift in how consumers respond to those with mental and physical disabilities, as evidenced by several award-winning campaigns for major brands, such as Lloyds Bank and the Mars company, that celebrate disabled people.

Business is driven by innovation. The neurodiverse are lateral, creative thinkers, hence they innately innovate. Their innovation has the potential to impact business bottom lines.” —Afua Basoah, VP at Rabin Martin

A key driver of the neurodiversity conversation at Omnicom UK has been Sam Phillips, Chair of OPEN UK (Omnicom People Engagement Network, which focuses on diversity and inclusion).  Four years ago, Omniwomen was established in the UK where Sam was on the committee that inaugural year and co-chaired it in the second year – and Omnicom UK is proud that 48% of its senior leadership is female. OPEN Pride UK, an LGBT+ affinity group, was launched in in 2017.   On the people with disabilities front, Sam is the UK Government’s Advertising Sector Champion for disability.

“In an industry that values creative thinking, it’s great to be starting the conversation about the advantages that neurodiversity / people with diverse minds can drive in the workplace.”   —Sam Phillips, Chief Marketing Officer, Omnicom Media Group UK; Chair of OPEN (Omnicom People Engagement Network) UK, and Assistant Dean, Omnicom University

What next?

Several global companies have already begun to realize the potential of recruiting neurodiverse talent, best illustrated by software giant SAP, who have not only committed to making 1 percent of its workforce people on the autism spectrum via its successful “Autism at Work” program but have incorporated the initiative within their corporate thought leadership.  Meanwhile, JPMorgan Chase recently created an autism-hiring program and Microsoft reported an 80% success rate in their drive to hire autistic talent. However, there isn’t yet a critical mass of practices and policies around neurodiversity and a key challenge going forward will be developing proof points that demonstrate the impact of hiring neurologically diverse employees, as well as developing best practice frameworks to help inform corporate practices. Perhaps more importantly, an approach to supporting the neurodiverse should go beyond HR, and be integrated with corporate reputation, social responsibility and vision around long-term differentiation and growth.

Everyone is looking for ways to differentiate and understand the mechanisms that drive and enable organizational innovation and corporate growth. Establishing mechanisms to leverage the power of the neurodiverse may help companies achieve both their strategic business growth goals and contribute to purpose driven motives.

Be part of the conversation

What approaches are you employing to drive organizational innovation?   Do you have examples to share of how diverse team members have contributed to innovation at your firm? Do your company’s diversity and inclusion policies support those with autism, dyslexia and those who “see the world differently”?  We’d love to hear what you think! Write us at


[i] Office for National Statistics (2016) Dataset: A08: Labour market status of disabled people (20 July 2016).

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