Leidos Technical Fellow Kit Wilkinson explains why neurodiversity is key to building successful teams
When it comes to creating the overall plan for how to deliver a particular solution — whether that's airport threat monitoring or maintenance systems for subsea infrastructure — Leidos Technical Fellow Kit Wilkinson's focus is always on creating teams that are able to solve problems collaboratively.
"It's been scientifically demonstrated that the combination of guesses from a large number of people will often give you a better result than the suggestions of a small number of experts," he explains. "And collaborative solutions are also more sustainable than hierarchies, which can crumble when one person leaves."
Wilkinson believes his focus on collaboration may stem from his experience with dyslexia. Throughout his life, he has relied on support, either from computers or from other people in his team, to help with tasks like filling out forms that he would struggle to manage alone.
"I was one of the first people in Scotland to use a computer in exams," he explains. "Computers have always been my allies, and I need them to function in this world. People also are allies, and we need to cooperate to create the world we all want to live in."
While Wilkinson's background may be in technology, his current role requires understanding the specific strengths and weaknesses of both the technical and human parts of the puzzle. His primary aim is to ensure that both people and computers are able to perform the tasks that best cater to their particular skill sets.
It's really important to me to build structures that allow people to actually feel engaged in their work,“ he explains. “Part of that is not making assumptions about what another person will enjoy because while aligning spreadsheets might seem like a really mundane task to someone else, for instance, for me, that's something I get a great amount of satisfaction from.
Kit WilkinsonSolution Architect & Leidos Technical Fellow
Understanding that other people may not think the same way you do, and making space to let them tell you what they need to flourish in their job, can be particularly important for neurodivergent individuals, says Wilkinson. He believes neurodivergent individuals can bring an enormous amount to their teams.
Wilkinson was reminded of this when he decided his team should celebrate a recent project's success. Excitedly announcing that he'd secured some funding to allow them to go out for a nice dinner, he was surprised to be met with a relatively lukewarm response. It was only later that he realised spending hours in a strange environment locked in social small talk sounded like more of a punishment than a reward for many of his teammates.
"Instead, we set up a voting system for what to do with the funding, and we ended up using it to order the team-designed space base out of Lego," he explains. "Everyone got an hour off on Friday to help build it, and it was wonderful because those who wanted to talk could, and those who didn't want to chat had something that they could focus on doing with their hands."
As he describes, it takes time and effort to learn how best to accommodate the needs of team members and convince other colleagues of the importance of adapting to different ways of doing things. Still, for Wilkinson, the payoff from creating an environment where different ways of thinking can flourish more than justifies the effort.
"When we talk about neurodivergence, many people tend to just think of Sheldon Cooper [from 'The Big Bang Theory'], people who can hold tens of thousands of lines of code in their head," Wilkinson says. "I've worked with people who have that blessing, and it's brilliant, but neurodiversity is much, much wider than this. All of these different ways of thinking are so valuable because they can disrupt hierarchies and expand the thought processes of an entire team."