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The Hedgehog and The Fox

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Hedgehog and the Fox has generated discussion and debate for more than 60 years. Berlin titled his essay in homage to a fragment attributed to an ancient Greek poet, Archilochus.

We probably take it too seriously. Berlin himself lamented as much. So let’s have some fun. It’s sort of an intellectual game, after all!

Starting with the obvious: it’s a classification, right? You’re either a fox or a hedgehog. Perfect. Easy. Simple.

If you’re a fox, you know many things. If you’re a hedgehog, you know one big thing.

That classification allows us to consider several possible differences:

  1. Foxes cannot possibly know all those many things as well as the hedgehog knows the one big thing. So looking at it this way, it’s breadth vs. depth.
  2. Others classify foxes as tactical thinkers and doers and hedgehogs as big-picture/strategic thinkers and doers. I have to admit that I didn’t consider this angle until I started to dig deeper. But it’s interesting, as it applies to modern work and modern teams.
  3. The big one, and the classic philosophical debate: Despite their differences, they are both survivors — for very different reasons. The fox survives through a diverse range of cunning and tricks derived from knowing many things. The hedgehog survives by doing just one trick (i.e., rolling into a ball), but doing it very, very effectively.
  4. Consequently, the fox is more adaptable to a dynamic environment, in which a range of skills and behavior ensures survival from known and unknown threats. A hedgehog, on the other hand, seems better equipped to survive in a stable environment, where rolling into a ball will work every single time. Yet, if a predator learns a way to overcome the hedgehog’s defensive move, then the hedgehog would be in trouble and could conceivably fail 100% of the time, leading to extinction. The fox may never survive at a 100% rate in any environment, but it’s unlikely to ever fail at a 100% rate either.

Wouldn’t it be nice if it simply boiled down to two types of people? Unfortunately, that’s where the game ends — it’s not that simple, and this isn’t scientific, it’s philosophical.

An organization probably would rather be a fox, like Apple, than a hedgehog, like Kodak. But maybe if you’re Harvard, it’s OK to be a hedgehog.

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