Last week’s blog reported on the judgment/forecasting research of psychologist Philip Tetlock. Noting an overall absence of forecasting skill by his so-called expert subjects, Tetlock nevertheless did find differences in performance based on their cognitive styles. Using a hedgehog-fox metaphor drawn from Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” the author discovered that foxes consistently outperform hedgehogs in the forecasting challenges he gave them.
“Low scorers look like hedgehogs: thinkers who ‘know one big thing,’ aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing … and express considerable confidence that they are already pretty proficient forecasters … High scorers look like foxes: thinkers who know many small things, are skeptical of grand schemes … and are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess.”
The business feel good book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins uses Berlin’s hedgehog/fox fable as well but, in contrast to Tetlock, anoints hedgehogs as the winners. “All good-to-great leaders, it turns out, are hedgehogs. They know how to simplify a complex world into a single, organizing idea—the kind of basic principle that unifies, organizes, and guides all decisions.”
In the business world, according to Collins, hedgehogs are plodding, but methodical with a single idea, a razor-sharp vision, while foxes are fleet and cunning but diffuse in purpose, attending to many activities and ideas. “Good to Great” uses case control “study” methods to contrast "great" companies with simply "good" ones, “finding” that great companies are disproportionately hedgehogs with a purity of focus, while just good companies are over-represented by diffuse foxes.
Author Phil Rosenzweig disagrees, challenging this and other popular business press “theories” in his terrific book, “The Halo Effect - and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers.” Rosenzweig argues that “Good to Great” is guilty of the “wrong end of the stick” delusion, confusing causes and effects of success.
“It may be true that successful companies often pursued a highly focused strategy, but that doesn’t mean highly focused strategies often led to success…We’re on shaky grounds if we infer that because a handful of extremely successful companies were hedgehogs, it follows that companies out to act like Hedgehogs, pursuing one big thing.”
Indeed, if Rosenzweig were to choose sides in the hedgehog-fox dialectic, he’d almost certainly opt for the fox, noting in an interview several years ago that business initiatives are all about “trying to improve the probabilities of success is the way we should look at things. Business performance is, after all, relative and not absolute – we are in competition with other companies, and our success is also affected by what they do. There are not, therefore, formulas that can reliably and predictably lead to high performance. Our task as managers is to make judgments, under conditions of uncertainty, that stand the best chance of improving our likelihood of success in a competitive market setting.”
At least one other business author I’ve discussed appears to agree with Rosenzweig. In the economic development world, William Easterly has written extensively on the failings of efforts in the international poverty war, unfavorably contrasting what he calls planners with searchers in the approach to foreign aid.
The planner thinks she already knows the answers, which are derived from planned solutions to technical engineering problems. A searcher, on the other hand, acknowledges upfront that she hasn't all the answers, but is intent on finding them through trial and error. Planners determine what to supply; Searchers seek what's in demand. Planners have grand ideals; Searchers are modest in intent, looking for little victories. Planners are top-down experts; searchers are bottom-up experimenters. For planners, the plan with fixed objectives is too often the end game; searchers, in contrast, are not unduly attached to their ideas, but instead are flexible and nimble, willing to vary objectives with learning. Planners raise expectations; searchers crave feedback and accountability.
Planners, then, are modern hedgehogs with their grand plans drawn from top-down strategic thinking. They are the experts; they know best and promise to deliver big outcomes.
Fox-like searchers, on the other hand, are afflicted with Tetlock’s “diffidence”, admitting they don’t have the answers. Much more scientific than hedgehogs, foxes are bottom-up thinkers committed to evidence-based solutions using the experimental method. Rather than offering big plans, they “search” instead for little victories.
Count me squarely in the Tetlock, Rosenzweig and Easterly searching-fox camp. I guess I have much more confidence in my ability to be scientific than to plan strategically. And my hunch is that there’s a much higher success rate for that style than for the grand planning-hedgehogs.
What do readers think? Are you more a planning-hedgehog? Or a searching-fox?
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