What has dyslexia taught me about project management?
Richard Auburn, Licensing and Ventures Manager at OUI, recently shared how his dyslexia shaped his relationship with work. Here, he goes into detail on how he works with the condition while in the office.
Albert Einstein is famous for realising that gravity is due to heavy objects causing spacetime to be curved. Physics students visualise gravity by adding weights to a sheet of rubber. When I think about work, I mentally picture an image alike Einstein’s visualisation of spacetime. For me, work entails completing actions at a defined point.
I’m a Senior Licencing & Ventures Manager at Oxford University Innovation (OUI), which helps the University turn its research into reality. Much of my work involves negotiating licence deals and helping founders build tech companies. I work on multiple projects in parallel as each can take months to be realised. Time and resource management are critical as I must balance the needs of every project within my portfolio. This can be tricky as I’m not the decision maker who defines when a project will be realised. Dyslexia has been a huge help to me whilst I resolve the above challenges as I’ve spent my entire life building strategies to manage myself at school, university and work.
Dyslexia means that I find it hard to assign an identity to a name or an email address as I need to know what a person looks like before I can connect with them. I will therefore always try to meet people in person or via a video conferencing tool. This may seem trivial but being able to match a face to an email address is a huge help. My working memory is also limited which means I can’t trust myself to remember simple tasks. I can never ‘pop to the shops’ without first writing a list.
I prefer to work using colourful and abstract representations rather than detailed written notes — I think using images, not words. My way of thinking does, however, mean that I can find hidden connections, quickly comprehend fundamental principles and I can easily simplify complex messages. My aversion to verbosity means my notes will always be succinct. These attributes lend themselves to a working practice that matches how I perceive work.
My time management approach is built on a system that entails simplifying data collection, performing frequent strategic reviews and adding colour-coded tasks to my diary. I avoid ‘to do’ lists as these do not lend them themselves to initiating an action as they fail to capture time and a location. In my job, location can mean working at my desk, joining a conference call, a video call or attending an offsite meeting. This is likely to be true for anyone who works in this sector as the tools of your trade are likely to be a laptop and a mobile phone.
A key tool that I use to collect data is a notebook that has plain yellow paper. The colour maximises contrast when I’m reading, whilst the lack of ruled lines affords me the freedom to draw diagrams instead of being directed toward writing notes. I can also happily ignore established spelling conventions as I alone will use this notebook. All notebook entries include a reference to the project, the date, who was present, a high-level summary of what was discussed and the agreed actions. The notebook can be used during in person, phone or video meetings and provides a flexible and cost-efficient data collection method.
My email inbox records incoming requests that haven’t been reviewed whilst my outbox documents my requests to others that await a response. Emails are otherwise filed when any enclosed tasks have been actioned or when an FYI email has been read and an action documented. Phone calls are documented by sending an email to myself or within my notebook (whichever’s easiest at the time). I never speak to someone without taking some notes as I cannot trust my short-term/working memory — the risk of an ‘error by omission’ is too high.
My project notes are recorded using a spreadsheet. The precise details aren’t pertinent as these are specific to my role. The key advantages that a spreadsheet package offers are the ability to list each project as a separate row within a single document whilst each column records a key project stage or a key performance metric. These records can be clustered within a single worksheet or spread across multiple worksheets. Mine are loosely grouped and used to record patent applications, external stakeholders and actions, and where each project is.
Each metric is colour-coded to simulate a picture. Conditional formatting helps whilst also saving time and reducing errors during data entry. The two key fields that must be added are a priority score (colour coded) and a text box to clearly and succinctly record the next action. These two fields enable me to plan my future work.
Projects are assessed against a strategic metric that is informed by my employer’s goals and any pertinent procedures as this provides a data-driven, and easily understood metric that benefits from my employer’s accumulated experience. Within my profession, this will entail prioritising projects that are most likely to yield a societal impact and a financial return. Those that are unlikely to achieve either are assigned the lowest priority. Projects that exhibit one but not both are assigned an intermediate priority score.
Crucially, projects can move up/down the priority list whenever a review is performed as the situation may change as we learn more. There is no upper limit to the number of projects that can be assigned the highest priority score but this will prompt me to forewarn line management that I risk becoming overloaded. The last point is hard for me to accept but it’s a crucial lesson for everyone to learn — mistakes can be made when you’re overloaded.
I reserve time to review every data input and my project portfolio spreadsheet. This allows me to balance all stakeholder’s requirements and make informed decisions. Careful reflection is required as it’s clearly important to act on the best available data. For example, assigning a priority rank means that I can direct any dependent resources to that project whilst managing the opportunity costs for the rest of the portfolio. Stakeholders are also happiest when I can be seen to be leading a project rather than responding to their requests for updates. I believe my mental health is also improved as I’m being pro-active, making the most of my core strengths and I can effectively manage stakeholder expectations as I know what I need to work on.
My process is transparent as my diary is open to everyone within OUI. This method has several advantages that include actively reserving time to complete each of my future actions. I can also add notes or attach any pertinent materials to dairy entries; my future self is frequently grateful as this simple step saves a lot of time. Diary entries are colour-coded to simulate a picture for easier interpretation. For example, offsite meetings are always in blue (I need to go outside; it’s probably cold/wet), onsite meeting are green (inside will be warm/dry; like summer) and travel is red (Oxford traffic can be awful). Urgent ‘at desk’ tasks are black (I’m at risk of being in trouble) whilst the other ‘at desk’ tasks are grey (relax, nothing to see here). The colours that I chose may seem odd but there’s a logic to each of them.
Any task that I don’t need to work on is immediately delegated to prevent these being added to my diary. Tasks must always be delegated when another person is better positioned to take them forward. I always respond positively whenever I’m at my desk and a colleague asks me for help as this builds a supportive working culture. I will never say “sorry, can this wait a bit as I’m busy” or “please come back in 1 hour as I’m working on a black task”. I will also always accept meeting invitations from others that overlap grey diary entries. The grey entry will then be moved. I never allow myself to delete a diarised task. Black entries can only be superseded if I’m asked in person as I need to accept that this may be required. Recently received and any new emails are read and those that are easy to resolve are responded to immediately.
I cannot be sure my working processes will help you as they’ve been designed to play to my strengths, whilst compensating for my weaknesses. I can, however, report that I have a reputation for being organised and highly efficient. My working processes have the additional advantage of supporting my mental health as I’m building actionable plans instead of writing a ‘to do’ list to catalogue the tasks that I haven’t completed. All data inputs are subject to a regular review to align my actions with all parties’ interests. I am proactive whilst leaving space to support colleagues or react to an emergency. No specialist software is needed, and my system is easy to implement — you just need to reserve time to perform a review and then be willing to act accordingly.
My dyslexia has helped me develop working practices that play to my strengths and compensate for my weaknesses. I believe this approach has helped to make me more productive. My experiences suggest that neuro-diverse staff can offer their neurotypical colleagues support. Given the constraints we work within, you should assume that a neurodiverse colleague will excel in an area that may be of benefit to you. How else would they be able to work alongside you and at your level? Granted, it may be a bit odd to think of work as a concept and to use terms such as those that Einstein used to describe gravity. But then again, how many of you knew that Albert Einstein was believed to be dyslexic?