Neurodiversity, mutants, and organisational design

I encountered this email some time ago and I’m publishing it now with the permission of the author.

It’s interesting watching Alice.

Beth bought Alice a potty that plays music when you make a deposit. She went to the next room and when she came back she had dismantled it and figured out directly how to trigger the sensor. It was a new purchase and she hadn’t even started using it.

That’s just one of many surprising things.

If you try and talk to her when she is “working” she will just ignore you. But at other times she is super social and engaged. And monkey music and the playground she is more interested in other people than the thing in itself.

So I think human cognitive diversity is massively under recognised in its importance. That kind of behaviour is “not normal” (Bezos was a bit similar as toddler) but the idea of normality is just completely wrong.

Test scores are Gaussian.

But that’s only because they squash them onto one - grading on a curve.

The world of mediocristan.

Human capability follows a power law and in that case what matters most as a rule is not what your weaknesses are (provided you have found a way to survive and cover those bases) but what you can do that almost nobody else can.

It follows almost trivially what an organisation composed of such people operating in this kind of way will look like.

Nothing like anything known to the assume Gaussisn guys. It’s going to seem very strange. It will make sense viewed internally but to the outside world or new arrivals: “!???! (!”

If you can do something easily, more easily than all but a few people you know and it’s difficult for others that creates some challenges.

You say this shouldn’t be difficult to get to a first cut. You’re not wrong because you can do it easily whenever you want.

And its harder than that even. You can do something easily and quickly an uncomfortable but much better way than the easiest default way. But it seems to be really hard for others even to begin.

I think one test is is the person really trying. If they are sweaty and a bit bloodied (and you can tell what’s real) then they can do what they can do but probably they will figure it out if they persist.

And I think it relates a bit to the point about organisational design for mutants being more strange than mutants themselves are.

Just keep an eye open for mutants to cover the missing capabilities.

Suppose you find someone 20x, 200x better at certain things. Your organisation of the work ends up being very odd indeed. Job descriptions seem surreal.

Consider that :

  1. Organise the work to reflect differences in capabilities and motivations

  2. Capabilities follow a power law distribution.

  3. At the top level - and our bottom level is in today’s world super elite globally - every capable person is unique.

One problem with the old school approach of putting resources on a project is the most able people don’t like being treated as resources and of course how to approach it depends on the individual human beings involved.

Now that can get out of hand too.

I keep side stepping the traps eg James might create inadvertently through custom and habits.

A never ending frame game.

So we had at one point 80 pull requests in the queue. James was giving me the same talk about technical debt I had to Wei. I told him so too.

Ie he is suggesting oh this code needs a lot of cleaning up. Sometimes it does and occasionally it’s awful, but I usually say so myself if it is - I know better but it’s what I can do.

And I have to care about the whole as well as the parts. Write an implementation with the right API today and you can improve it later. No implementation and there are no words to describe what happens by default! Yet many programmers would rather that be somebody else’s problem. My nice tidy world where sanity reigns.

And words are not worth much but you can look at how the code changes, and the things I wrote aren’t changed much before being accepted - in fact if I had time I myself would have done more polishing myself than I did.

A good hacker makes breakthrough original work. But if you view the work in pieces every part of it has technical infelicities in the beginning. The creation is alive and to be alive means to be imperfect.

So the trap would be to exert dominance hierarchically as the first option. That’s by far easier for me.

But what is the price? I can’t be seen to be two faced about cleaning up technical debt because if I am not sincere then nobody will take it seriously.

What’s worked is I write the first versions and others extend and refine it. So this way I don’t get blocked but at same time it can’t bring down production processes.

This long diversion was really to illustrate how working with capable people means everything has to change.

Because using force doesn’t when sustained work. And you have to invent your way out of the particular problems created by not being able to order people as a standard modus operandi.

So anyway this is a logical point I always knew but forgot to emphasise.


Our central finding is that the distribution of individual performance does not follow a Gaussian distribution but a Paretian distribution. Our results based on five separate studies and involving 198 samples including 633,263 researchers, entertainers, politicians, and amateur and professional athletes are remarkably consistent. Of a total of 198 samples of performers, 186 (93.94%) follow a Paretian distribution more closely than a Gaussian distribution. If, as our results suggest, most performance outcomes are attributable to a small group of elite performers, then both theory and practice must adjust to the substantial role played by these individuals. Next, we discuss implications of our findings for theory and substantive research; research methodology; and practice, policy making, and society. … Beyond concepts of ethics and fairness, a Paretian distribution of performance has many practical implications for how business is done. As we described earlier, a Pareto curve demonstrates scale invariance, and thus whether looking at the entire population or just the top percentile, the same distribution shape emerges. For selection, this means that there are real and important differences between the best candidate and the second best candidate. Superstars make or break an organization, and the ability to identify these elite performers will become even more of a necessity as the nature of work changes in the 21st century (Cascio & Aguinis, 2008b). Our results suggest that practitioners should focus on identification and differentiation at the tails of the distribution so as to best identify elites.Organizations must also rethink employment arrangements with superstars, as they will likely be very different from traditional norms in terms of starting compensation, perquisites, and idiosyncratic employment arrangements. Superstars perform at such a high level that makes them attractive to outside firms, and thus even in a recession these individuals have a high degree of job mobility. In an age of hypercompetitiveness, organizations that cannot retain their top performers will struggle to survive.

Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage

Wei tells headhunters I only want you to send me mutants.

We hired someone with severe apraxia a year ago. You don’t know them but you would never guess who it was.

I’m quite strongly against the medicalisation of all differences as being the only frame one has.

It’s a frame but just one.

In the DSM if you are grieving for more than six months then you have a mental disorder.

In my personal opinion the aufhors of the DSM demonstrate disorder in their cognition just from having permitted this alone. I haven’t read it myself but my late mentor had. It might be longer than six but the point is clear maybe.

There’s a book about the root reasons for the wrong turn. Dr Iain McGilchrist Master and His Emissary.

Does Richard Branson have a learning disability? If his dyslexia allows him to do things others can’t then I don’t really see how you can call it that.

My cousin used to manage classical musicians at the highest level at the age of 25. And some of these people were quite special. Not wired like the representative Harvard MBA from 2007. I think their sensitivity and other unusual traits were tied to their talent.

I think the emphasis on being nice and of getting unanimity in hiring means many of the strongest people upset too many people to make it through. Sad for them and objectively but it’s our opportunity.

I think people are really different, much more than is generally recognised and that the best people even more so.

If you can create a context where people can flourish and realise their potential whilst maintaining a commercial orientation, what competition do you have really?

Also see: Why is there only one Elon Musk? Why is there so much low-hanging fruit?

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