Written by Pauline Reith
A long-term colleague of mine, from my engineering project management days, long ago reached the highest echelons of corporate management.
When we met we worked as equals in a fast-paced, high-pressure and high-profile project. It was at least ten years before I sought and received my diagnosis of having traits of Asperger’s Syndrome (but that’s another story).
Hence, I wasn’t “labelled” and no-one had heard of the condition, outside of their children’s school reports, and there were no workplace reasonable adjustments. The common feedback I received was that my projects were delivered within time and budget (positive) and I got on well with close team-mates (as evidenced by my colleague’s continued friendship since that time). Additionally I was someone who got things done (positive) but in doing so I was allegedly “aggressive” (negative). The jury is out as to whether this was an unconscious bias about my female gender, but male colleagues who behaved similarly, or more “vigorously”, were either left to continue or promoted.
My colleague has initiated many conversations in the last couple of years around employees on the Autistic Spectrum and he looks to me to explain how I see things and interpret the world around me.
Lately, we have discussed how there are bound to be so many undiagnosed cases within the numerate disciplines, especially for those over 30 years old. After all, engineers and IT folks have always had a stereotypical image of being “nerdy”, unable to explain things to “normal” people, and working on their own rather than being a “team player”.
The impact on individual teams and the wider organisation is not usually recognised, appreciated or catered for. Nor is the 180 degree effect of the teams and organisations on the A.S. individual.
So it was interesting when he asked me to give my feedback on how to present to a mega-audience of corporate employees, where his aim is to Inspire and Motivate them individually and as a whole.
His starter-for-ten was to focus on delivering “What the Project Could Look Like” by presenting scenarios of a New World with some idyllic examples, and he looked at me to respond.
“You are the second most senior manager/leader of this project, and you are don’t know exactly what the project will look like?” was my natural reaction. We then talked about how he didn’t mean the question to be taken quite so literally and that he didn’t expect his audience to either.
But as he mused about whether anyone would be so literal, he recalled a recent conversation with an IT manager about past presentations at this type of forum. “I dread it every year” he said, “because for the following two weeks I have to spend almost all of my time calming down all the individual members of my data analysis team who can’t make any sense of the vagaries, metaphors and rhetorical questions used in the oratory. Therefore they try to review all the possible interpretations of what has been said and explore every one of the permutations of (often conflicting) options.
“Now I understand what he meant” my colleague reflected. “Data analysts are more likely to be on the autistic spectrum whether they, or anyone else, really know they are. So anything that isn’t data, hard fact or without a definitive probability attached, is bound to confuse or not make any real sense.”
I added “But as the presentation is given by such a high-level authoritative person it is to be assumed that the message is very important and therefore is vital to understand. So they will be on a continuous loop to review it in order to determine what is not immediately apparent.”
In under an hour, we had reached an option that might satisfy his original intent as sell as relating to, if not fully understood by, the A.S. contingent.
In referring to the major shift on society, behaviours, and work practices from the introduction of the smartphone, he could clearly predict a similar shift in the whole industry from the project output of real-time information. He could definitely say that he didn’t know what that would mean for every individual or every team, but that they were in the best position to predict what similar changes could mean for them at work, at home, on their travels.
We parted, both having confidence that the original message could be delivered in a way where everyone would be motivated and inspired to see the future for themselves, without any imprecise terminology or language.