Focus, Focus…Forget About It

Isaiah Berlin‘s fable of the fox and the hedgehog (“The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing”) has become a lodestar for management thinkers of all stripes. And the hedgehog, representing the single-minded focus that great managers and leaders need, has become their mascot.

As Jim Collins wrote, “The pivot point in Good to Great is the Hedgehog Concept. The essence of a Hedgehog Concept is to attain piercing clarity about how to produce the best long-term results, and then exercising the relentless discipline to say, ‘No thank you’ to opportunities that fail the hedgehog test.”

[EXPAND More]This got me wondering: If successful organizations are hedgehogs, should their employees try to follow suit? For his part, Collins says that the best leaders act like hedgehogs: “Good-to-great leaders distinguish themselves by their unyielding discipline to stop doing anything and everything that doesn’t fit tightly within their Hedgehog Concept.” But do they think like hedgehogs?

Peter Drucker sure didn’t. “Every three or four years I pick a new subject,” Drucker wrote. “It may be Japanese art; it may be economics. Three years of study are by no means enough to master a subject, but they are enough to understand it… That not only has given me a substantial fund of knowledge. It has also forced me to be open to new disciplines and new approaches and new methods—for every one of the subjects I have studied makes different assumptions and employs a different methodology.”

In fact, a recent long-term study of expert political judgement found that it’s the people who think like foxes, not like hedgehogs, who tend to perform best. “Foxes are not awe-inspiring forecasters,” wrote the study’s author, Philip Tetlock. “But foxes do avoid many of the big mistakes that drive down the…scores of hedgehogs to approximate parity with dart-throwing chimps. And this accomplishment is rooted in foxes’ more balanced style of thinking about the world—a style of thought that elevates no thought above criticism. By contrast, hedgehogs dig themselves into intellectual holes. The deeper they dig, the harder it gets to climb out and see what is happening outside, and the more tempting it becomes to keep on doing what they know how to do.”

What about you—Do you think like a fox, but act like a hedgehog?[/EXPAND]
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