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The Manager as Maker

Don Tapscott, who has written 15 books, most recently Radical Openness: Four Unexpected Principles for Success, introduces an excerpt that demonstrates how openness to new business practices and work settings can unleash human capital, from The Soul of Design: Harnessing the Power of Plot to Create Extraordinary Products, by Lee Devin and Robert D. Austin.

These days, I see evidence of the rich potential of radical openness everywhere. More and more companies are shunning the insular, opaque business practices of the past and rethinking commonly held beliefs about the workforce. In the process, they are discovering that human capital can come from surprising places and take myriad forms.

To access these untapped sources of human capital, companies may need to remake work settings and adopt new approaches that eschew the dictates of command-and-control management in order to enable and truly empower employees and other collaborators. The excerpt that follows provides a dramatic example: At a Danish software testing and consulting company named Specialisterne, three-quarters of the staff members are autistic.

As you might expect, Specialisterne must provide its people with unusually high levels of training, customized work settings, and managers who are able and willing to support them in unconventional ways. But the effort is well worth it. Company founder Thorkil Sonne’s openness to rethinking and remaking the workplace enables him to hire people who are often considered unemployable but who are actually perfect for the rigors of software testing—and they have helped the company achieve a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Don Tapscott

An excerpt from Part 4 of  The Soul of Design: Harnessing the Power of Plot to Create Extraordinary Products

Specialisterne (“The Specialists”), a Copenhagen-based company, provides software testing and some other services to a list of prominent international clients that includes Microsoft, Computer Science Corporation, Oracle, and Lego. Members of the company’s consulting staff have skills uniquely suited to software testing and similar jobs: three out of four have been diagnosed with some form of Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

Autism is a brain condition that impairs social interaction and communication, and it leads those afflicted to exhibit restricted and repetitive behavior. The condition, which usually becomes evident before a child is three years old, poses significant developmental obstacles. But it can also include particular talents: exceptional focus, impressive thoroughness, strong memory. According to Specialisterne’s founder, Thorkil Sonne, “Researchers have hypothesized, based on facts known about their lives, that many of history’s great achievers—Albert Einstein, Socrates, Charles Darwin, and Isaac Newton among them—might have been afflicted by a mild form of ASD called Asperger’s Syndrome.”

Sonne’s inspiration to start the company originated when psychologists diagnosed his three-year-old son, Lars, as autistic. The condition presented the expected difficulties to Sonne and his family, but occasional surprises suggested that Lars possessed unusual capabilities. One day, for example, the boy began drawing a very elaborate diagram. At first, Sonne couldn’t figure out what it was, but after a while it took on a familiar shape. Gradually it became a map of Europe, but thick with perplexing numbers that meant nothing to Sonne. Later and completely by accident, as he looked through an atlas, Sonne stumbled on the source of his son’s drawing: the index page. The numbers indicated pages in the book on which detailed maps of regions from the larger area appeared. This remarkable child had reproduced from memory the entire overall image, complete with numbering scheme, without a single error.

Sonne, who at the time enjoyed a successful career as an IT professional within a large telecommunications company, recognized potentially valuable capabilities in his son’s behavior. To reproduce the diagram so accurately required a strong memory, the skill to concentrate on minute detail, and a willingness to submit to an exacting standard of accuracy. These mapped well on to the skills that Sonne looked for in software and system testers. From this realization, he made up his mind to start a new software testing company in which the majority of employees would be people with ASD. To start the company, he quit his job and refinanced his home; he took a big risk, but he knew that to make a company that met and found value in the unusual needs of his employees would require his total attention.

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The Reviewer

  1. Don Tapscott ([email protected]) is CEO of the Tapscott Group and vice chairman of Spencer Trask Collaborative Innovations, which is building a portfolio of companies in the collaboration and social media space. He is an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. Tapscott is the author of 15 books about information technology in business and society, including, with Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (Portfolio, 2006), Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World (Portfolio, 2010), and Radical Openness: Four Unexpected Principles for Success (TED Conferences, 2013).

This Book

  1. The Soul of Design: Harnessing the Power of Plot to Create Extraordinary Products (Stanford Business Books, 2012), by Lee Devin and Robert D. Austin
  2. Lee Devin ([email protected]) is a senior consultant with the Cutter Consortium’s business technology strategies practice. He is an emeritus professor of theater and senior research scholar at Swarthmore College and senior dramaturge at People’s Light and Theatre Company. Devin is also coauthor, with Robert D. Austin, of Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know about How Artists Work (Financial Times/Prentice Hall, 2003).
  3. Robert D. Austin ([email protected]) is dean of the faculty of business administration at the University of New Brunswick. He has written several books, including, with Richard L. Nolan and Shannon O’Donnell, Harder Than I Thought: Adventures of a Twenty-First Century Leader (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012) and The Adventures of an IT Leader (Harvard Business Press, 2009).
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