Nov 1, 2011

All kinds of minds

For those who don’t know, Temple Grandin is a gifted engineer and advocate for people who are different. She is also a woman with autism, or perhaps Aspergers, but definitely “on the spectrum” as people are beginning to say. Dr. Grandin gave a keynote talk at the recent AME conference and described how her mind works differently from most other people. She calls it thinking in pictures.

Using her example, when she says the word “steeple,” most of us see a picture of a generalized steeple, something pointy at the top of a church. We might accompany the picture with a verbal sort of description, and may have memories of being in a church with a steeple or watching a movie where someone falls out of a steeple.

In contrast, she says she sees pictures of all the steeples she has seen, not an identification of a category that they belong to. Her mind just works that way.

Which comes to her point -- we need all kinds of minds in our world, and many kinds in our companies.

She sees a problem right in a child’s early years, when schools are increasingly labeling children and channeling them in special ed -- kid who would have been in the classroom in the past. One driver she mentioned is the need for schools to pass assessment tests. They need a set of students who are good at remembering things and performing well on certain kinds of tests. It’s serious. The fate of the school and careers of teachers really do depend upon these scores.

Which kids are on the autism spectrum and which are on the “typical” -- we don’t say “normal” anymore. Well, if a spectrum is a statistical representation of a population, we’re all on it. Each of us is just a little more up the scale or a little more down it. Then there are all the other spectrums (spectra?) we can imagine:

…and so on.

Some children with specialized talents are not well-endowed with those measured on the tests. If they can be excluded from the test-taking population by labeling them, schools and teachers will be assessed as satisfactory or exemplary.

Of course, some children have needs so specialized that they truly need intensive support of a different sort. The topic of mainstreaming -- putting special ed kids in the regular classroom with a support person -- is a big one.

The wrong metrics can drive the wrong behavior -- we know that. Now how can we help the school improvement process develop better ones?

Let’s not stop here. Are our preconceived notions about employees excluding people whose talents might add value we couldn’t get any other way? If we’re now calling human resources “talent management,” where are we looking for talent? How are we rewarding people who are different? (John Robison's book, “Look Me in the Eye,” shows how difficult it is to accept some people in an organization if the organization can’t adapt.) Of course, there is a point where a business cannot function well if behavior diverges too far from what gets the right things done.

Challenge yourself to look at the humans in your organization in a new light. How does your organization fit people who are different? What are you missing when some people can’t thrive? Do you have an opportunity to stretch your boundaries and those of your organizations?

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