Nan Nelson, Envision Board member and Economic Transformation Signals Team

Envision’s Economic Transformation Signals Team has been looking for signals related to the future of our local economy.  Among the issues on our domain map are:

  • the changing demographics of the workforce and organization leaders
  • technological developments affecting our main economic sectors
  • the local entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem
  • changing work/life patterns

We’re finding a great many signals of big change on the far horizon!  In fact, so many that the team has decided to narrow our search focus for the time being to technological developments, while still keeping an eye on other areas of interest.

One such “other” intriguing signal recently surfaced in the area of workforce diversity and skill sets needed in the future: a new book by the famous animal-handling expert Temple Grandin called Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns and Abstractions.

Grandin, herself a visual (and autistic) thinker, makes the case for widening the neurodiversity of all work teams by recognizing the value of visual thinkers. Science writer Steve Silberman calls the book “a powerful and provocative testament to the diverse coalition of minds we’ll need to face the mounting challenges of the twenty-first century.”

Many large firms are beginning to recruit autistic individuals for their ability to concentrate and master detailed work such as computer coding.  Other organizations have long valued those who can think in patterns of abstraction described by mathematics. 

But Grandin contends that our increasingly verbal education system sidelines not only these thinkers, but also screens out “object visualizers” like herself.  Young visual thinkers like drawing, building with toys like Legos, and are “good with their hands.” But today, hands-on learning has been scrubbed from the school curriculum—no more shop, home ec, art, theater, welding, auto mechanics, etc. Grandin, herself a PhD professor of animal science, said she was screened out of college initially by an inability to master algebra and calculus, something typical of visual thinkers. As a result, America, she contends, is losing technical skills essential to the future of manufacturing, construction, design and engineering.

Grandin’s book goes on to detail studies that show how diverse thinkers advantage teams and how real-world disasters like Fukushima and the Boeing 747 MAX result from the absence of visual thinkers on work teams.

How can you tell if you’re a visual thinker? She suggests an interesting shortcut to determining where you fall on the visual-verbal spectrum: You buy a piece of furniture and are ready to put it together.  Do you read the instructions or follow the pictures?

Shouldn’t your organization’s employee recruitment program include a neurodiversity element?