Like weeds in a green lawn, people who are “different” — whether behaviorally or neurologically — don’t always fit into standard job categories. But if you can arrange working conditions to align with the abilities of such individuals, they can add significant value.
At its annual user conference in May 2013, German multinational software giant SAP AG announced plans to hire hundreds of people diagnosed with autism, with a target of having people with autism represent 1% of the company’s work force by 2020.1 The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines autism as a developmental disorder associated with “impairment of the ability to communicate with others” and “preoccupation with repetitive activities of restricted focus.”2 Companies don’t typically seek out these characteristics in new hires. In fact, the social struggles and behavioral patterns that accompany autism often make individuals on the autism spectrum unemployable.3 So why did SAP take this unusual step? As a charitable gesture? An act of corporate citizenship?
Actually, there was a strong business rationale for the decision. “We share a common belief that innovation comes from the ‘edges,’” one SAP executive stated in the company’s press release. “Only by employing people who think differently and spark innovation will SAP be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21st century.”4 More specifically, the company had discovered that some people with autism have abilities that are extremely well-suited to performing some vital information technology tasks. The motivation was to hire people who are among the best in the world at jobs other people are not able to perform as well.
We believe this kind of thinking can be extended much further, to provide significant benefits for companies and society. SAP’s move embodies an emerging management principle — we call it “the dandelion principle” — and offers an alternative way of thinking about human resources management. In some ways, it turns some of the basic tenets about how to recruit and manage people inside out.
Discovering a Gift for Software Testing
SAP’s initiative was inspired by the experience of Danish consulting company Specialisterne, which was founded by one of the authors of this article (Thorkil Sonne). Specialisterne’s clients have included Microsoft, Cisco, SAP and other multinationals. About 75% of its skilled employees have some form of autism spectrum disorder, which makes them well-suited to certain jobs, such as software testing, quality control and security monitoring.
It turns out that there are good reasons for this. Software testing, to take that example, is repetitive and detailed work for which most people have limited tolerance, and it needs to be done well. Software testing also tends to be individual work, requiring constant referencing back and forth between computer output and listings of the results that should have been generated by software. These job characteristics are well-aligned with the attributes of individuals with some forms of autism: an exceptional ability to focus and pay attention to detail, and finding comfort in repetitive activities. What’s more, many individuals with autism spectrum disorders struggle with social interaction and perform well on solitary tasks. As Torben Sorensen, a former Specialisterne consultant, explained:
I have an ability to see when something deviates. It kind of leaps to the eye … I have a keen eye for errors. I completed 90% of my teacher’s education … but I wasn’t good at … making contact with [students]. I like working here … Here I can just concentrate on my work without being considered antisocial.5
Of course, not all people with autism have the skills and motivation needed to do well in these jobs; among the population of individuals with autism spectrum disorders, there is a wide range of abilities. Effective assessment and training are critical to understanding what employees can do and getting them into a comfort zone where they can excel.
From the beginning, Specialisterne (which means “the specialists”) has maintained that it competes based on the talent of its people, not by drawing on the good intentions of others. (See “The Origins of Specialisterne.”) Specialisterne is not alone in its experience using specialized talent. Inspired in part by Specialisterne’s example, other organizations including Passwerk in Belgium, Auticon in Germany and Aspiritech in the United States have initiated similar programs. Such companies are discovering important but unexpected benefits. For example, some client managers who supervise Specialisterne employees have said that learning to design a work environment to maximize the effectiveness of people with autism — and learning to adapt a management style to better fit an individual employee — helps them achieve better results from a broad range of employees. In other words, thinking about work environments from the employees’ perspective can provide managers with a tool that can generate impact in many parts of an organization.
Understanding the Dandelion Metaphor
The dandelion might seem an odd choice for a workplace metaphor. To many people, the dandelion is a nuisance, a weed that can spoil a beautiful green lawn. But the dandelion has many positive characteristics. The roots can be roasted to make a coffee substitute. The leaves are edible and can be used in soups; they are excellent sources of calcium, potassium, iron and manganese and full of vitamins A, C, E, K, riboflavin and beta-carotene. Researchers in Canada are even studying whether an extract from dandelion roots could have cancer-combating potential.6
Given its inherent positive qualities, you might wonder why the dandelion is considered a weed. The answer has to do with context: Within a carefully maintained lawn, the yellow dandelion, with its jagged leaves and long stalk, is out of place. However, in contexts that don’t call for uniformity, we can appreciate the dandelion’s distinctive attributes.
In many ways, Specialisterne’s people with autism spectrum disorders were like weeds that didn’t fit into standard job categories. But once the company designed contexts that were aligned with the individuals’ tendencies and abilities, the people who didn’t fit in elsewhere were able to add a lot of value. The company’s logo depicts a dandelion seed, sailing in the wind in search of a place to thrive and grow.
The “dandelion principle” turns traditional thinking about managing people on its head. Usually, in human resources, we try to determine what kind of person might be of use to execute the organization’s strategies and plans; we capture the traits we are looking for in position descriptions that describe roles, duties and required skills. From these descriptions, we generate checklists, then we go looking for people, in the job market or within our organizations, that fit according to the checklists. Sometimes this works reasonably well.
But other times this approach blinds us to great abilities. It’s no accident that great achievers, in business or beyond, rarely fit into conventional molds; in the tech industry, for instance, we have the examples of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, both college dropouts. There is an alternative approach that we can adopt to harness more of the world’s talent, and to make organizations more innovative. And it’s not really new. If we take a closer look at the high-profile technology sector, in which both Specialisterne and SAP participate, we see similar examples and a pattern beginning to appear.
Nerds, outcasts and college dropouts who somehow make good (and, often, get rich) have played starring roles in accounts of the exploding tech sector in recent years. Some observers have surmised that many coding champs and hardware heroes who’ve worked tech miracles might score higher than average on the autism spectrum.7 Indeed, people with autistic tendencies might self-select into situations in which they can work mostly alone within a constructed universe — and in recent years, those preferences may have often led them to enter computer-related fields.
But it’s not just autism. As many have noted, talented tech workers can be behaviorally atypical in many ways. And frictions between talented technology workers and managers with business-as-usual practices are legendary.8 While working as a manager in a multinational company, for example, one of us lobbied our employer to hire a brilliant software engineer who had long done superb work as a contract employee. This candidate had unique skills and deep knowledge of the company’s mission-critical software, but he was also “different.” He became anxious in social situations (including job interviews), had trouble speaking in groups and didn’t always communicate well with nontechnical colleagues. The company never made him an offer.
Some companies make a point of learning how to tap idiosyncratic talent. A venture capitalist we know who worked at Microsoft for many years recalled that the company had a knack for harnessing the talents of atypical workers: “At the core of every product ... you’d often find a very capable individual … These guys — no offense to them — but they’re all a little odd … We thought of them as having ‘inspired peculiarities.’”9
Sometimes these peculiarities are attitudes, habits or an unwillingness to put aside nonwork-related interests. Writer Bruce Sterling has provided a rallying cry for the unapologetically difficult yet talented nerd:
Forget trying to pass for normal. Follow your geekdom. Embrace your nerditude. In the immortal words of Lafcadio Hearn, a geek of incredible obscurity whose work is still in print after a hundred years, ‘Woo the muse of the odd.’... You may be a geek. You may have geek written all over you. You should aim to be one geek they’ll never forget … Get sophisticatedly, thoroughly weird, and don’t do it halfway. Put every ounce of horsepower you have behind it … Don’t become a well-rounded person. Well-rounded people are smooth and dull. Become a thoroughly spiky person. Grow spikes from every angle. Stick in their throats like a pufferfish.10
On a panel about managing talent, the president of an information technology consulting company in the Seattle area once related the following story:
One of my star players ... wants to be a musician. He quit [an earlier job with a well-known company, where he had made a fortune] and now he’s working for me 20 to 30 hours a week. And what a deal I have! I’ve got to be willing to let this guy go on the road, disappear for a couple of weeks at a time, go record CDs. But he does great work, so … you know, it’s an opportunity … I’m definitely okay with it.11
Similarly, a software company CEO told us of her discovery, while struggling to hit a make-or-break deadline, that her top developer was devoting half his work time to political activism to change software patent laws. When she stumbled across this, her developer didn’t try to hide it. He thought his distribution of effort completely reasonable. She needed his talents, especially in the situation they were in, so persuasion was her only option.
Many managers in the tech industry, faced with talent in less-than-well-rounded or less-than-fully cooperative packages, have adjusted. They’ve implemented a version of the dandelion principle already, out of necessity. They have adjusted to the eccentricities of highly talented tech workers — and have sometimes found additional benefits to this approach. As the software company CEO pointed out to us, the different perspectives that come with different people can be very important to an innovation-based business:
When [your business shifts] you’ll often find the seeds for the shift in that group, because they’re not really paying attention to you all along anyway. They were worried about some way-out-there trend. They’ll see it and there will be something there. [The key to] how to manage change is in that group of folks you don’t have a lot of control over.
This argues for adjusting work conditions to further activate the foresight and talents of people who “think differently.” Rather than seeing this kind of adjusting as an exception, we should look for other opportunities for adjustment, even for employees who aren’t especially eccentric. If by redesigning work conditions for individuals you can significantly increase the amount of value your people create, that might, depending on your business, be worth more than the cost of the changes. (See “About the Research.”)
Redesigning Work for the Innovation-Based Economy
One reason companies have begun to move to a different kind of people management follows from a shift that’s under way in how value gets created. In the industrial economy, companies could often win by operating more efficiently than rivals. Today, that’s no longer enough. Faced with lower-cost competition from developing countries, established companies also need to innovate, to offer products that are better than what’s available from competitors.
But innovation calls for organizational capabilities different than efficiency. Efficiency requires getting people and machines to mesh more smoothly; the emphasis is on parts fitting in and reducing variation around averages. Innovation, by contrast, involves finding new and better ideas and using new processes. Managing innovation is less about averages and more about understanding outliers. The emphasis is on increasing interesting variation, then identifying value in some of the variants.
That isn’t easy. People and organizations form habits, which can make it hard to create sufficiently original products and services. Habits also make it hard to see value in new variants; the easiest kind of value to see is the kind you’re accustomed to seeing. That’s why innovative companies can benefit from people from “the edges” who have different perspectives: individuals with different cognitive or behavioral inclinations who do and see things differently. If industrial competition was about managing averages, innovation-based competition is about harvesting the benefits of valuable outliers.
Traditionally, human resources management has been geared to enabling companies to execute their strategies and plans. But in an innovation economy, things need to be more fluid. Business strategy needs to pick up on changes in the business environment — and so must human resources. Indeed, organizations including Zappos, the online retailer, are experimenting with less structure and attempting to organize around temporary projects as opposed to traditional functional hierarchies.12 As company strategies shift, many job roles can’t be contained in boxes on static organizational charts. (See “A New Approach to Managing People.”)
A New Approach to Managing People
How should companies respond? Traditional HR practices involved starting with fixed strategies, deriving job requirements, refining these into descriptions, then hiring and developing people to fit the roles. The dandelion principle calls for hiring people with potentially differentiating skills and talents, assessing those skills carefully so you understand them, organizing the work context around the people to maximize their ability to create value, and developing their inherent talents to enlarge the potential for future, unanticipated forms of value creation. Managers must still make judgments about which skills and talents can create value, but the judgments are looser; there is no illusion about being able to derive precise job requirements from stable strategies. When it’s difficult to anticipate the biggest opportunities and problems, people assets — specifically, people who approach problems from different perspectives — can help you adapt.
The Opportunities for Untapped Talent
Google’s online dictionary defines a resource as “a stock or supply of money, materials, staff, and other assets that can be drawn on by a person or organization in order to function effectively.” The phrase “human resources” suggests that there is valuable “human stuff” that happens to be stored in containers called “people.” This is like referring to the contents of a famous art museum as “paint resources.” In the innovation economy, such terminology is counterproductive.
In this article, we have suggested the direction in which change should move. The dandelion principle argues for taking on larger challenges. The world contains many types of underutilized talent — not just people with cognitive, developmental or behavioral differences, but also people who lack access to opportunity for other reasons. Boys in rural India might be headed for lives as subsistence farmers, following in the footsteps of their fathers. Girls in sub-Saharan Africa might be headed for lives of poverty and disease. But if we can adjust the overall contexts of these boys’ and girls’ lives (for example, by providing access to education and technology), they may be able to do something totally different, and the resulting benefits could flow in multiple directions.
In the face of many challenges, businesses shouldn’t be resigned to “leaving talent on the table.” Businesses can’t afford to set aside people who are different, especially in a world afflicted with serious difficulties, where we need different perspectives to help us innovate. The examples of Specialisterne and SAP offer a hint of what’s possible.