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The Superpower of Neurodiversity & How It Can Make Every Product Team Better

Episode 66

The Superpower of Neurodiversity & How It Can Make Every Product Team Better with Marton Gaspar

Meet Guest: Marton Gaspar

Marton Gaspar is a psychologist and has founded 4 startups over the years. He’s also worked for startups and enterprise clients in the chatbot, data science, and SaaS space. Marton is a product management consultant and coach at The Product Whisperer specializing in product leadership, customer engagement, and neurodiversity and is also Head of Product for one of his clients, Pivigo, a data science startup. He is an advocate for neurodiversity in tech and is a thought leader in this space, creating content in various mediums on the topic.

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[00:00:24] JJ: Hello, this is JJ Rorie, vice president at Sequent Learning Networks. In our Masters of Product Management podcast, we tap into the experiences of people who work in and around product management, to help you learn and grow in your product management career.


[00:00:38] JJ: Diversity in tech; diversity and product: it’s a hot topic these days. Most of these discussions center on the diversity of race, gender, or sexual orientation—which, of course, is very important and should continue to be a critical area of focus for organizations. In fact, I’ve had a couple of episodes on this podcast around those topics. Very important. However, what isn’t discussed quite enough, in my opinion, is neurodiversity. I, myself, am still learning about this, and that’s why I’m so excited about our conversation today: the superpower of neurodiversity and how it can make every product team and every organization better.


[00:01:16] JJ: So, what is neurodiversity? Our guest is here today to give us a really good background on it, but one interesting definition that I found was from John Elder Robison, who is a neurodiversity scholar in residence at the College of William and Mary. This is his definition:

“Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences, like autism and ADHD, are the result of normal natural variation in the human genome.”

This represents a new and fundamentally different way of looking at conditions that were traditionally pathologized. It’s a viewpoint that is not universally accepted, though it is increasingly supported by science. That science suggests conditions like autism have a stable prevalence in human society, as far back as we can measure. We are realizing that autism, ADHD, and other conditions emerge through a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental interaction. They are not the result of disease or injury.


[00:02:19] JJ: Neurodiverse people have made a tremendous impact on our world, including Albert Einstein, Greta Thunberg, Charles Darwin. You most likely have friends and family, maybe coworkers who are neurodiverse. I’m honored to be spending some time with my guest today, who is here to educate us on this important topic. Marton Gaspar is a psychologist and has founded four startups over the years. He’s also worked for startups and enterprise clients in the chatbot data science and SaaS space. Marton is a product management consultant and coach at The Product Whisperer, specializing in product leadership, customer engagement, and neurodiversity, and is also head of product for one of his clients, Pivigo, a data science startup. He’s an advocate for neurodiversity in tech and is a thought leader in the space, creating content in various mediums on the topic. Marton, thank you so much for joining me today.


[00:03:18] Marton: Thank you so much for having me.


[00:03:20] JJ: I’m really looking forward to this. Thank you. So, I love your story. I love the important work you are doing.


Can you share with the audience more about what neurodiversity is, and how it’s important to businesses and organizations?


[00:03:37] Marton: Yeah, sure. So, people who are neurodiverse have a differently structured brain. Therefore, they will be thinking differently. So if we are looking at innovation, which often comes from more and better ideas, diversity of thought is key. If people have a different brain, well, they are bound to come up with very different ideas from others. And having those in the team can ensure that you are going to come up with ideas as well that will outperform your competition.

 So basically, you’re not hiring neurodiverse people as a charitable act; you’re hiring them because if you’re not, you’re leaving money on the table.


[00:04:25] JJ: I love that. So it’s not a charitable act; but you’re leaving money on the table. It’s a competitive advantage, almost, for organizations. Elaborate just a little bit about that, and what you’ve seen with some of the companies that you’ve worked with.


[00:04:39] Marton: Again, if you have people who think the same, the product decisions that will come out of them is likely something that your competition has already come up with.

Product teams are always trying to increase empathy. And that’s why diversity, as a whole is really, really important, to get all the different viewpoints, backgrounds, and thinking to the table, to make sure we develop the best products for our customers. But what often doesn’t happen is adding neurodiverse people to the mix, or people don’t realize that they already have neurodiverse people.

It may be that the company doesn’t realize it; but a lot of people themselves, they just don’t realize it. But the point is all of these neurodiverse people have this different way of thinking, and also have superpowers that combat their differences, so that we create this massive competitive advantage. For example, no one can pick apart a massive problem, and create logical small chunks from it, like someone with autism. People who have ADHD are just brilliant in piecing together very different pieces of information because their mind is running at a thousand miles an hour, and are just able to see connections that other people don’t. People who have dyslexia, they are really fantastic, high-level thinkers and can be really, really strategic and articulate in their views. So if we are trying to build the best products possible, then having people on your side who can’t do all of these things for you—and actually want to—well, that would be a mistake, in my view.


[00:06:32] JJ: Yeah. So, let’s talk a little bit more about this. You made a video—speaking of some of the things that you just mentioned—on neurodiversity in tech. The video’s called Working with Autism: Powers and Challenges. So by the way, listeners, go check that out. Working with Autism: Powers and Challenges. You can find it on Marton’s LinkedIn page. We’ll put it in the information on this episode as well.

So, tell us what made you create that video? What were you seeing in organizations that drove you to try to explain some of this more to organizations?


[00:07:16] Marton: Organizations are full of people. If we boil it down to people, then when a person says—and by the way, I’m really open about being autistic. I have ADHD and dyslexia as well. So, when I start talking to a new person, often I mention this. And a reason to mentioning this is because I would like them to understand me a little bit better. And what I often find is they will make assumptions based on Rainman and assume that they know how to deal with me. And that doesn’t really make me feel more understood, and it doesn’t necessarily help in that specific meeting, in the context of that meeting. So I realized that it’s not a person’s fault for not knowing; it’s what’s lacking. And what is the root of the issue is awareness. So I realize I need to raise awareness on how to deal with this: how to deal with someone who’s autistic, how to deal with someone who’s just a little bit different. It doesn’t have to be tied to a diagnosis. If people behave differently than you would expect, then the best and the easiest thing is just simply to ask them. Also, it’s good to have a bit more awareness of what they may be, because it may prompt you, and you may be more aware that you need to ask a question here; you shouldn’t start judging. So the reason why I made this video, and why I’m making more video and content as well, is because I am trying to raise awareness to help people understand neurodiverse people better, and also to empower neurodiverse people to speak up and to come out more about—or be honest about their own condition.


[00:09:26] JJ: That awareness is critical, and I love the idea of neurodiverse people being more empowered. I’ve learned a lot from you, frankly, from the few conversations that we’ve had preparing for this episode. And you know, it’s really something important that I hope more organizations take and really champion. So, let’s talk a little bit more about managing for neurodiversity.


What common things do you see that are challenges for organizations? And maybe how can organizations and teams overcome those challenges and take advantage of neurodiversity?


[00:10:05] Marton: Really good question. So, one of the common things that I see is the culture itself. If you work specifically for a larger organization, it can be challenging to set up a product practice that is actually doing product; that is not a feature team, as Marty Kagan would describe it. If you have a culture where people are empowered, where people are inspired, and they’re being led with a vision and they have scope and autonomy to come up with ideas, that’s the culture that helps neurodiverse people—but all the other people as well—to thrive. One thing is to manage neurodiversity, a lot of the times what I see is companies think, “Oh, we’re going to need a lot of money to deal with this.” But actually, a lot of the time, all you need is a conversation, which is free. All you need is that awareness. And it doesn’t matter if someone is neurodiverse or not. If any of your colleagues just noticed that you are struggling with something, a decent human being would just ask, “Hey, what’s going on? Can I help you? Is there any other way I can approach you or deal with this to make it easier for you?” And I think those conversations are the most important ones that companies, and people within those companies, could have.


[00:11:54] JJ: Some people are afraid to speak up. They’re afraid to ask questions. They’re afraid to offend, or to assume and don’t want to necessarily have those conversations because sometimes they’re difficult. But I love the advice you’re giving of just asking questions and being helpful. And I think that will help.


[00:12:15] Marton: Yes.


[00:12:15] JJ: Very interesting.


[00:12:17] Marton: These can be difficult conversations, but what’s a lot more difficult is to assume, then misunderstand people and deal with all the consequences that come out of it, and just watch: the whole culture does go terribly wrong. There’s tension rising. That’s not what we want. What we want is an environment where people are thriving. Where people are challenging each other for a common goal. Where people are not afraid, and they bring their whole self to work. And all of them, shoulder to shoulder, are passionately arguing to find the best kind of solution. If this is the culture you have—in this culture, asking someone, “Hey, you’re staring at me a little bit too much. Is it my outfit or is it you?” You can ask questions in a really harmless way and prompt conversations. If you’re unassuming and you just ask an open or normal question, people will often know what they’re struggling with.


[00:13:28] Marton: And again, it’s not the diagnosis; it’s—what is challenging for you? If someone has a challenge with mundane reports, like some people with ADHD do because they often make tiny mistakes, then maybe a solution is to pair them up with someone or have someone, like a supervisor, double-check the key reporting activities. But it also comes with the self-awareness and the knowledge within the team, understanding of who’s good at what. And these people—or every person, actually—who is weaker at something will be stronger at something. And if the team knows whose strength to play on, that’s when the team will perform the best. So, yes. Can it be scary having those conversations? Yes. Can it be damaging? Yes, if you go in with assumptions and judgments. But if you go in and just try to check-in, in my experience, the people who are being checked in on will be really, really grateful, and you are going to form a closer bond and a better work relationship. And all of you will be able to benefit from all the superpowers of each other.


[00:14:43] JJ: That’s so great. So, that culture, and creating that culture, is the bedrock to successful organizations.


Is there any other advice you would give to companies that want to increase diversity—specifically neurodiversity? Is there a proper way that companies can go about trying to make their team more neurodiverse?


[00:15:09] Marton: Yes. So firstly, it starts with the whole awareness and understanding piece. So, make no mistake: your company and your culture was probably done by neurotypical people for neurotypical people. So they’re not even going to see the challenges that, let’s say, neurodiverse people would see. But it already starts with the job spec. If you just say, “Oh, we have diversity,” that’s probably not going to convince, in this day and age, anyone—especially not top talent that you would like to attract. So you have to show what efforts are you making to to actually implement diversity in the core of your business model? After that, the interview process. You know, 2.4% of autistic people finish higher education. That’s a really scary statistic, right? If that’s the fact, probably these people who are neurodiverse often don’t have the most straightforward CV. So if your selection process is already trying to look for “outstanding” in the traditional way—that you went to the best school and got the best grades—well, probably, you’re going to miss the mark, if you get these neurodiverse people in somehow—by some miracle—in an interview, and you don’t make the necessary adjustments. And that adjustment may just be an attitude.


[00:16:50] Marton: For example, don’t judge me on my tone, or my facial expression and body language. Because every interviewer thinks they’re Freud—not everyone, but a lot of them think they’re Freud, and they understand me based on my body language and my facial expression. And guess what? It doesn’t work on autistic people. So if you will start jumping to conclusions based on what you think you know, then you’re not—these people, the neurodiverse people, will probably not pass your interview criteria. So you have to set up this whole pipeline from attraction to interviewing, through evaluating these candidates in a way that is fair for them…but actually, that is really fair for your company as well. Because, again, if you’re trying to go for the best talent, and the best talent is a diverse group of people—it’s not just an individual; a single high-performing individual, but a group of people who work well together and bring all the different sides to the table—then your hiring process needs to reflect that, as well as your onboarding and integrating them into the team, that we’ve already talked about in the culture piece.


[00:18:13] JJ: Yeah, that’s really tangible, great advice. And it’s so important, what you said, and how you started that conversation—or that part of the conversation. Companies and cultures are typically built by and for neurotypical people. And so often, you miss the mark so inadvertently, right, just because the environment is set up a certain way. Very tangible advice there, to job specs and what you’re looking for, and then the interview process. I think that’s really, really good advice. And I certainly hope that organizations take heed of that, because I think it’s so important. And we’ve talked about how neurodiverse people, and a team that is diverse—having neurodiverse folks, neurotypical folks—it just leads to more empathy. It leads to better teams, better products, better innovation. And again: most people listening right now are product managers or product leaders. So they live and breathe building better products. So this is such an important way that they can do that. And I am so thankful for folks like you, who are big advocates for this. It’s just such an important conversation that I think organizations need to have.


[00:19:40] JJ: I have one more question for you, Marton.


If someone suspects someone on their team is autistic, should they talk to them? Should they ask them? Should they adjust their ways of working to make it easier? How can they go about this in the right way?


[00:20:02] Marton: Yes, so we’ve already talked about—the diagnosis isn’t the important fact. So just FYI, a lot of the times, it happens that people think or even say, “Oh, that person is probably autistic.” But actually, at least in England, the way to diagnose autism is by a board of psychiatrists. So it’s not a super easy thing to do. And people going around pointing and making a diagnosis—I personally don’t think that’s the most helpful way to go about it. I think best is to have an open, honest conversation focused to where they see the particular challenge. So you will think—if someone thinks one of their coworkers is autistic, has ADHD, or whatever, they will think—because there’s going to be at least one concrete thing that they do…and people would do it differently, right? So maybe that’s a really good start for a conversation. But I would really, strongly encourage people from diagnosing and pathologizing people. Just talk to them openly, clearly, honestly, unassumingly, and ask them, “Hey, are you okay? I have seen that, for example, this is something that was maybe a little bit more challenging for you. Is that the case? How did you feel about it?” Just get their perspective. And that’s a really good way to start the conversation. And from these conversations, it’s going to be that—there’s going to be a natural progression where both you and the person you’re talking to can come to different ways to adjust.


[00:21:55] Marton: So I’m not necessarily saying that people should say, “Oh, I only want to be communicated with through email because that’s easier for me,” and then that means that you will never invite them to a meeting again. But if you know what’s easier for a person, then you can already start helping them by talking to them, by doing—by trying to approach them the way that could make it better for them, as long as it’s practical. There are always ways that you can make this better—plus, don’t forget, just because it’s a bit more difficult for someone to do a specific way of communication, for example, it doesn’t mean that they can’t change. It doesn’t mean that they can’t evolve. It doesn’t mean that they can’t improve. And by addressing these, and giving them your views, your helpful thoughts on what are they trying to do and and where are they going right or wrong—well, not necessarily wrong, but what are the challenges for them—it can help them improve, as well as improve yourself and your working relationship with them, which will make working easier.


[00:23:21] JJ: This has just been such a great and important conversation, Marton. Thank you so much for joining me and sharing your experiences and your important guidance for all of us. There are more information and resources on Martin’s website, product-whisperer.com. Marton, thank you so much for joining me today.


[00:23:48] Marton: Thank you so much, it’s been an absolute pleasure. And thank you, everyone, for listening.


[00:23:52] JJ: And thank you all for joining us on Masters of Product Management, powered by Sequent Learning. I am JJ Rorie and I look forward to speaking to you on the next episode.

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