Competitive Advantage through Individuals Outside the Norm - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #425

Competitive Advantage through Individuals Outside the Norm

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While employees who think ‘differently’ may be hired as part of the social responsibility activities of a corporation, corporate pioneers demonstrate that such individuals, such as those, for example, who are diagnosed with certain forms of autism, can perform certain tasks more effectively than (in this case) employees without autism. Hiring such employees thus becomes a bid for competitive advantage rather than an exercise in social responsibility. 


When in May 2013, software giant SAP announced that it would hire hundreds of people who were diagnosed with autism, the assumption among casual observers might have been that SAP was engaging in a laudable act of social responsibility. However, SAP executives, working with researchers and consultants in the field of autistic individuals in work environments, made the decision in order to become more competitive through a more effective workforce. Specifically, company leaders made the decision based on evidence that certain types of autism made individuals much more suited to effectively perform some vital information technology tasks.

Autism is a development disorder that can cause individuals to have problems communicating with others; it is also associated with a preoccupation with focused, repetitive activities. While such characteristics are not usually sought in new employees, there are activities for which the preference for working alone (because of communication problems) and a laser-like focus on repetitive tasks gives employees with such characteristics an advantage. Software testing — a vital but repetitive and detailed work — is one example. Software testing is individual work, and requires continuously going back and forth between computer output and a list of what should have been the computer output. It is the kind of activity that is perfect for those who prefer solitary work, those who are obsessive about detail, and those who take comfort in repetitive tasks: exactly the set of attributes of many people diagnosed with autism.

Of course, not all individuals with what is more specifically known as ‘autism spectrum disorders’ will have the skills and motivation needed for these jobs. As the name implies, autism spectrum disorders include a variety and range of disorders. Therefore, careful assessment and training is required to understand what these employees can do and to find the task in which they are most comfortable, and therefore most effective.

There are companies that specialize in placing people with autism, including Specialisterne, the Denmark-based company founded by Thorkil Sonne and with whom SAP and other major companies such as Microsoft and Cisco have worked. Through the research and consulting of Specialisterne and others, companies are not only beginning to see the vast potential of employees with autism, but are even improving the skills of their HR managers. Through the experience of designing work environments to maximize the effectiveness of these employees, they are learning to work better with talented but ‘behaviourally atypical’ employees of any kind (not just employees with autism) that fill the ranks of the high tech world.


Specialisterne founder Thorkil Sonne and Professor Robert D. Austin entitled their MIT Sloan Management Review article about the unique potential of employees with autism, ‘The Dandelion Principle’. The metaphor is for the much-maligned weed that, according to the authors, is actually beneficial to the environment. However, with its tall stem and yellow flowers, the dandelion breaks the uniformity of a green lawn, and is therefore unwanted.

For people with autism spectrum disorder to be welcomed into a workplace, corporate leaders must have the ability to see beyond the idiosyncrasies that, like the dandelion in a green lawn, break up the uniformity of their workforces. It’s also important to note that the dandelion principle applies not only to those with autism, but to any potentially innovative and brilliant employee who does not fit into the traditional behavioural or appearance parameters of the traditional employee — including people with dyslexia, or anxiety disorders, or even weird interpersonal styles. Instead of keeping these individuals out of the company, executives and HR managers should try to find out how to take advantage of their unique abilities and preferences. 

In sum, the dandelion principle turns the traditional process of hiring and managing people on its head. Instead of creating a job description, and then looking to find the person that best fits that description, companies can find individuals who make unique, invaluable contributions by looking for ‘special’ people, and then finding the work that best fits them. In other words, it’s not a coincidence that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were college dropouts. Their skills and insights did not fit the structured requirements of university. 

Don’t let the next Bill Gates escape your company.



The Dandelion Principle: Redesigning Work for the Innovation Economy. Robert D. Austin & Thorkil Sonne. MIT Sloan Management Review (May 2014).


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Idea conceived

May 1, 2014

Idea posted

Aug 2014
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