The Fox and the Hedgehog: Which one are you?

Ian Andrew Bell is a Techvibes Guest Contributor and this post was published on his blog earlier today.

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  – Archilochus

fox-hedgehogWhich one are you?  The ancient parable of the fox and the hedgehog has come into increasing view in popular culture lately.  And while its origins are somewhat ambiguous, the allegory has been applied to entrepreneurs, scientists, philosophers, playwrights, business leaders, economists, and even US presidents. 

One of the fables goes something like this (sorry, no link to a source … I am paraphrasing a story from my childhood):

A fox and a hedgehog were strolling through a country path.  Periodically, they were threatened by hungry wolves.  The fox — being blessed with smarts, speed and agility — would lead packs of wolves on a wild chase through the fields, up and down trees, and over hill and dale.  Eventually the fox would return to the path, breathless but having lost the wolves, and continue walking.  The hedgehog, being endowed with a coat of spikes, simply hunkered down on its haunches when menaced by the wolves and fended them off without moving.  When they gave up, he would return to his stroll unperturbed.

According to the great liberal (before that was a dirty word) historian and thinker Isaiah Berlin who in 1953 wrote the Essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox“, interpreting the works of Tolstoy, Foxes are complex thinkers who account for a variety of circumstances and experiences while hedgehogs have the keen ability to focus and drive along a single path.   As examples, Berlin flags such thinkers as Plato, Lucretius, Dante, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Proust as Hedgehogs and slots Herodotus, Aristotle, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce, Anderson as Foxes.

More recently, Jim Collins (author of “Good to Great“) took this concept into the business world in his book and it is one of the central unifying themes of his work.  In his book and other writings Collins comes down pretty hard on Foxes:

Those who built the good-to-great companies were, to one degree or another, hedgehogs. They used their hedgehog nature to drive toward what we came to call a Hedgehog Concept for their companies. Those who led the comparison companies tended to be foxes, never gaining the clarifying advantage of a Hedgehog Concept, being instead scattered, diffused, and inconsistent.

This is understandable.  Collins, a former Stanford University Business Professor, comes from a hedgehog factory.  He has made a career of spooling hedgehogs into mainstream companies at the mid-management level and consulting with large, heavily-matrixed companies on business strategy and leadership.  In many respects he lives in a world constructed by and for hedgehogs — so it makes sense that he could see the “Great” companies he writes about in his books (all typically fortune 500 players) as hedgehogs.  On a long enough timeline we are ALL wrong, but it is worth pointing out that a number of Collins’ “Great” companies have suffered badly from (and others have caused) the current economic downturn, eg. Circuit City.

As Nicholas Kristof describes the dichotomy in the NY Times:

Hedgehogs tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, strong convictions; foxes are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance. And it turns out that while foxes don’t give great sound-bites, they are far more likely to get things right.

John Kerry is clearly a Fox:  self-doubting; complicated; unable to present absolute, sound byte-friendly answers to complex questions.  George W. Bush, however, presents himself as a hedgehog:  simple, direct, ideological, and absolutely assured of his correctness.  In 2004, America signed up for its second term of 4 years of hedgehog leadership to substantial effect.

In our industry, hedgehogs have the benefit of focus and the ability to keep their heads down and companies out of trouble during tough times.  They succeed through the avoidance of substantial risk and through the ability to see things through.  When they fail, it’s because their conservatism holds them back, and markets move past them; or because they can’t release their death grip on that singular idea and move on to the next thing.

The Fox has the benefit of broad vision and the ability to perceive the complex interaction of seemingly dissonant ideas, and they succeed because they are able to travel outside of marked pathways with their ideas and make substantial gains.  When they fail it’s because their reach exceeds their grasp, because they are too far ahead of the market, or because they have difficulty maintaining focus to see things through.

The one problem that Mr. Collins cannot cop to is that while Hedgehogs are mass-produceable through training and discipline (this is what MBA factories do), Foxes are not so easy to come by:  their behaviour is learned but it is most likely interdisciplinary and tangential.  As a modern example, one could strongly argue that Steve Jobs, Reid Hoffman, and many successful tech entrepreneurs are foxes.

On the other hand Bill Gates, who at one time was the richest man in the world:  pure hedgehog.  Rupert Murdoch?  Count the spikes.  There are many  successful hedgehogs in the mainstream business world and far fewer Foxes.  The structure of businesses, after all, are generally designed around hedgehogs.  In general larger corporate structures aren’t great at absorbing foxes.  It’s why Jobs quit Apple, before going back as CEO under a mandate that embraced his wide-ranging aspirations.  It’s probably why entrepreneurs such as Evan Williams, who blew out of Google as soon as he could after selling to them, generally can’t wait to get out of the mother ship after a their lock-up periods are done.  A friend and the CEO of a company acquired by Microsoft always referred to Redmond as “they” and never “we” even while he took down an amazing salary serving as a VP for two years.

Innovation is a concept which we modernists tie into every description of a person’s thinking process.  Wikipedia says there are a few different types of innovation:  “It may refer to incremental, radical, and revolutionary changes in thinking, products, processes, or organizations.”  Perhaps the razor cuts this way:  Perhaps hedgehogs deliver incremental changes while foxes deliver radical, revolutionary changes.

As a fox, I know that many of my successes have come when paired with hedgehogs.  A hedgehog can pluck a singular concept from the maelstrom of energy emanating from the fox and run with it along a narrow path.  Steve Jobs had Wozniak on the engineering side, and just as significantly Mike Markkula on the financing and business affairs side.  The latter two are quintessential hedgehogs.

While it’s valuable to know whether you’re a fox or whether you’re a hedgehog, it is not particularly constructive to assign a static value judgment to one versus the other.  At varying points in the arc of a business, a prevalence of influence from either a fox or a hedgehog can make or break a company.  Witness the foxes that artificially inflated hyper-economies at Enron (Jeff Skilling) and AIG (Joseph Cassano) to great personal benefit but ultimately destroyed hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth.  And meet the Hedgehogs, Gil Amelio and John Sculley, who sapped the growth of Apple, diluted its brand value, and very nearly bankrupted the company.

So figure out what you’re good at, chase the visions you believe in, and if you’re fortunate enough to work in an environment that embraces and supports your particular attributes, you’ll ultimately be successful.