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How Neurodiversity Should Affect Our Views Regarding Agility

Cliff Berg
Cliff BergPublished on August 26, 2022

We hear about the importance of diversity, usually expressed in terms of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI). But this usually refers to cultural, racial, and gender diversity. There is more to diversity than these: in fact, we are each different from everyone else!

And what does that mean for agility?

Enter Neurodiversity

At this point you might be feeling cognitive overload: “Oh no—another thing I have to worry about.” It’s not a worry though: it’s an opportunity. And you might actually find it liberating!


  • Autism

  • Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)

  • Dyslexia - difficulty reading

  • Dyscalculia - difficulty with numbers

  • Dyspraxia - coordination challenges

Neurodiversity refers to the fact that we are each neurologically unique. Hardly anyone is “normal” neurologically. In a group of people, there is usually a broad range of cognitive and communication strengths and weaknesses.

These differences manifest is various ways, for example, abilities for,

  • Auditory processing - ability to follow a complex conversation

  • Ease of reading written material

  • Grasping of graphic information

  • Expressing oneself verbally

  • A tendency to be distracted by activities around you

  • Ability to focus on a single thing for extended periods of time

  • Tolerance for uncertainty

These traits result in secondary tendencies, as shown in the figures below.

Neurologists diagnose these in more clinically precise terms, as shown in the sidebar. But what it means for us is that if we make assumptions about how the members of our team should all communicate or make decisions, we might be unintentionally excluding or making it difficult for some of the minds in our group, and we definitely don’t want that.

Implications for Organizational Agility

The Agile Manifesto states,

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

But this is not true—not even close. It is one of the things that the Agile Manifesto got wrong. This principle was pointing to a problem: that throwing documents “over the wall” to teams is not effective; but the opposite—replacing written communication entirely with verbal—is not effective either.

Effective collaboration about a complex issue is not an event: it is a process that occurs over time. A single conversation is but a single event. Collaboration about complex issues requires many events. It is not just talking: it often involves reading, writing, talking, listening, and thinking.

The implication for agility is that teams, and teams of teams, need to orchestrate collaboration. Collaboration often starts chaotically: someone identifies an issue that needs to get resolved. But then it is essential to decide who needs to be included in that collaborative process, and then shepherd it to make sure that the collaboration events enable everyone to,

  1. Receive and process everyone’s analysis.

  2. Think things through.

Only then is the group ready to make a final decision on what to do.

The challenge is that people are very diverse in how they best achieve numbers 1 and 2:

  • Don’t assume that everyone who has something to say will say it—or can say it in a group, without a great deal of anxiety.

  • Don’t assume that if a topic has been raised in a meeting, that everyone can properly think it through in the course of the meeting.

  • Don’t assume that everyone will read long content.

  • Don’t assume that everyone can think things through in a meeting: some people need to think in isolation before reaching a conclusion of their own.

  • Don’t assume that everyone can process a rapidfire conversation - many people dive into deep thought on the first statement and then miss what is said afterwards.

As a team lead, it is your job to do whatever you can to help the team to be as effective as possible. That requires paying close attention to each person’s individual tendencies, and making sure that people are able to do numbers 1 and 2 above. It might mean that you need to talk one-on-one to some people: some people will express themselves better that way, and so you can then raise their point of view for them in a later group meeting.

It might also mean that people in the team need to be encouraged to meet each other half way: if someone likes to write their thoughts down, encourage everyone to read it. If someone likes to “brainstorm”, encourage everyone to participate, to the best of their ability.

But then make sure that each person’s ways of communicating and thinking have been met: otherwise, you will miss out on accessing what their mind has to offer. And that is a waste.

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