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Foxes and Hedgehogs

March 5, 2012

In the Columbus Project Story, part of Here be Dragons,[1] a fictional company FutureParts is set an ambiguous and challenging task by the Board, to develop new lines of business contributing 25% of turnover in ten years.

To imagine the team of people to tackle this task, we used a description of management styles based on Isaiah Berlin’s categorisation[2].  As he uses it, Hedgehogs relate everything to single concrete narrative, through which everything in life is reduced to a single set of certainties. Foxes, on the other hand, distrust grand designs and absolute truths, and instead pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory. They use a flexible array of insights that guide them as they experiment, play with ideas and experience, explore and, on occasion, pounce.

Recent psychological testing[3] has shown that this is a valid and powerful way of classifying people.  As psychologists have defined the type, Hedgehogs are people who are happiest operating within a closed problem domain, in which standard tools and focused effort allow them to compete with their peers. They are happy with the existing system or implementing a formula to change it.

Foxes are at their best exploring new terrain and re-thinking certainties[4].  Their goals are largely self-actualisation and they are seldom concerned to rank themselves against their peers.  Foxes are suspicious of commitment to any one way of seeing an issue; they prefer a loose insight that is calibrated from many perspectives. They are tolerant of dissonance within a model – for example, accepting that an enemy regime might have redeeming qualities – and are relatively ready to recalibrate their view when unexpected events cast doubt on what they had previously believed to be true.

Hedgehogs are exactly what organisations need to deliver against unambiguous tasks and tight deadlines.  They were rightly prized in the operating environment which characterised much of the last century.  Hedgehogs, however, are often stressed when asked to extend the borders of their current activities, to predict events and to mitigate new sources of risk.

Foxes enjoy neither unambiguous tasks with tight deadlines nor perform well at them.  Foxes excel at tasks which extend boundaries or are ambiguous; and consequently will frequently encounter Hedgehogs at their worst.  Competent Foxes need a framework in which to operate that prevents them being undermined by, or coming into conflict with, Hedgehogs. It is Foxes, however, that are needed for strategic and futures thinking.

During the last twenty years, companies have run down their capacity to think in non-Hedgehog ways[5].  The direction has been to target the organisation at a single ‘thinking model’ – let’s say, the pursuit of shareholder value – then the organisation has its lode star, and can dispense with its Foxes.

So, Foxes congregate in consultancies, and are brought in when Hedgehogs hit a wall.  But of course no one is 100% Fox or Hedgehog; rather we are all a combination even if we have a preferred style.  What is useful is recognising when a particular style is needed and then applying that style. The CEO in FutureParts, the company in The Columbus Project Story, was lucky to find enough people internally who were able to cope with the ambiguity of the task set by the Board.

For more on Here be Dragons, please click here  Or contact gill.ringland@samiconsulting.co.uk

Written by Patricia Lustig, an Associate of SAMI Consulting and CEO of LASA Development


[1] Ringland, Gill, Patricia Lustig and Rob Phaal, with Martin Duckworth and Chris Yapp, Here be Dragons, Choir Press, 2012.

[2] Berlin, Isaiah, Hedgehog and Fox, Simon and Schuster, 1953

[3] Rosnow, R. L. ‘Hedgehogs, Foxes, and the evolving social contract in psychological science: Ethical challenges and methodological opportunities’. Psychological Methods, 2 (4), 345-356, 1997

[4] Illbury, Chantell and Clem Sunter, The Mind of a Fox”, Human & Rousseau (Pty) Ltd, 2001

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