Personal Stories, Autism

Autistic Entrepreneurship - Black and White Thinking

I have had fellow autistics explain to me in great detail why they would not launch a certain business. Reasons which boil down to “If it cannot be done perfectly, I won't even start”.

This is a shame, I struggle with exactly the same characteristic! It impacts so much of what I do. I agonise so long about getting it ‘just right’, which means that I always struggle to get articles and marketing copy out.

I have a strong need to be able to define things. I value clarity and ‘truth’, and like to reach a rational conclusion to all questions. I have developed a clear methodology that I believe to be the best for developing new marketing channels. In a world which is ambiguous and often messy, the model does not always fit reality. When this happens I find it hard to take decisions in the face of ambiguity.

This has led me to think about my black and white thinking, and the ways in which it impacts me as an entrepreneur.

Why is it an advantage?

My need for clarity forces me to categorise and rationalise, and helps me see patterns, structure, or solutions that others would miss.

I recently built a model defining 4 key roles of trainers which I teach to world-class facilitators. This helps them improve their insight and skills. The world benefits from these abilities to sort and file through the noise and provide clear frameworks to complex problems.

Why is it a disadvantage?

Life and business can be so complex that neat solutions do not apply. A question that I got stuck on for a long time, is whether a manager / boss should be ‘friends’ with employees or not. I need a clear answer to a question like this, a ‘best practise' - either it is good, or it is not. The truth, of course, is nuanced, it exists in shades of grey. There are good arguments for and against. In some situations, being personally involved with staff is a good thing, in others it is not. It's confusing and feels ‘messy' to me, and so I try to avoid the question altogether.

One way this characteristic manifests itself with me is a tendency to over-debate. I will simply not stop debating an issue until I feel there is one single clear and rational answer to it.

Another is perfectionism, whereby I will not start or move forward with a project unless I feel every detail has been absolutely resolved.

How can it be harnessed?

There is a definition of intelligence that I love - "Intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory views and know them both to be true".

For example: 'Acceptance is the key to a happy life' and ‘Happiness requires the courage to make difficult changes” (paraphrased from the Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous).

These kinds of contradictions occur in business all the time. For example, the statements: "Staff are primarily motivated by emotion, they will follow a sense of purpose more than anything else”, and “The most important consideration for employees is pay. If we don’t meet this requirement, they will not work for us.” contradict.

In fact, they are both true, it depends on the situation. So, the trick is knowing that I have to accept ambiguity. No rule is set in stone, ‘it depends’ is often the answer, and I must make decisions and move forward regardless.

Here are some of the learnings that I have been applying to help me accept ambiguity.

Don’t cater to the 10%. This important rule of thumb means, when discussing a solution to a problem, don’t be led astray by the exceptions. The mindset required is one of ‘best fit’, rather than ‘complete / perfect fit’. Business is not physics. For example, when defining the target customer group of a company, it’s easy to get hung up on the ‘long tail’, the minority groups that maybe want something different.

Action drives insight, not the other way round. I can remember as a young man figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, waiting for the answer to "what do I want to be?". I thought I would find it from travel, long conversation, reading books, or just thought & reflection. In truth, all that worked was trying and failing, gaining experience through taking action, gradually ticking off the list of things I realised I didn’t want to do, until I found the right fit. A Mark Twain quote that sums this up perfectly is: “The secret to getting ahead is getting started."

'Ready Fire Aim'. This famous developers mantra encourages us to get products to market when they are simply ‘good enough’ rather than when they are perfect. It’s a helpful slogan that reminds me that sometimes perfect is the enemy of good, and that it can pay to accept messy compromises in favour of just getting things done.

Get the role that fits. I am a senior trainer within the global Entrepreneurs Organisation. There are incredible trainers from all over the world in the group, and I have been growing in seniority and esteem within the group. I was offered the role of Lead Trainer, but when I looked at what it entailed, we decided to split the role into 2. The incumbent lead trainer will carry on dealing with the people in the group and the issues they’re having as trainers, she has an easy, natural leadership style. I will focus on the development of new content within the group. Much as I would like to be in charge of everything, I know from experience that I have to focus on the role that fits my cognitive strengths, rather than get bogged down in my Leadership weaknesses.

Final Thoughts

A key staff member recently decided to leave my company. She was on 3 months notice, as I needed her for critical client work. However, she had been offered her dream job, and needed to leave after 1 month.

I had set views and position on the matter: this was a bad thing.  She needed to be replaced with someone similar - which would take 3 months - and therefore she needed to see out her notice. On a tense call with her on the day a decision was required from me, I had to listen, reflect, and see how to find a solution.

We ended up replacing her within 3 weeks with 2 specialist freelancers, who can do the same work, at a higher level, flexibly, and at a lower cost than before. She’s delighted with her new job.

On that difficult day, I had to grit my teeth, say “Yes” to her leaving, and accept that this uncertain solution would work. Over the years I have learned to accept messiness and ambiguity, and to move forward in the face of uncertainty. It is not comfortable, but sometimes it is absolutely necessary.

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About Andy C

Andy is a successful entrepreneur, and runs a coaching company helping high-growth companies to scale. Diagnosed w ASD in his 40’s, he is interested in connecting with other autistic entrepreneurs.
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