Chapter 4. Personal Foresight - Becoming an Effective Self-Leader

Hedgehogs and Foxes – Two Personality Types

Two Valuable Organizational Types. Brown (2011).

Two Valuable Organizational Types. Brown (2011).

This is a great simple model of trait differences between people, one with many foresight implications. In 1953, philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote a short essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, about two common personality types. He based it on a quote attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Forecasting scholar Philip Tetlock revisited Berlin’s essay in his seminal work on political forecasting, Expert Political Judgment (2006). According to Tetlock, many self-declared futurists and future thinkers are psychologically biased to be generalists, learners, and “foxes”, folks who seek to know a little about a lot of different things. Other forecasters and future thinkers, including many foresighters (foresight specialists), are “hedgehogs”, folks who seek to know a lot about a few things, driving their knowledge and capabilities deep into a few subject areas. Hedgehogs are typically more common and more respected in business, but there are exceptions, including startups, and on strategy, marketing, editorial, creative, and R&D teams, some of the better-known  places where foxes thrive. Which animal are you? Soozie Brown at InnovaTribe offers a nice graphic for each type (picture left).

If we imagine each of us wielding a “t-shaped” sword of adaptation in life, folks are always trying to expand the hilt (the horizontal part) of their “t”. Foxes seek to advance and protect themselves with their breadth of knowledge and ability. As they learn more things, albeit at a shallow level, the hilt of their sword grows, changing from a “t” into a “T”. Meanwhile, the blade of their T, their mastery, doesn’t get any longer or sharper, as they are often more interested exploring (the learning function in the Eight Skills) than doing (innovation or execution). Oversimplifying a bit, foxes tend to be driven more by their passions and interests, and less by their masteries, those marketable things that they and others see they are effective at doing.

Hedgehogs seek to protect themselves by sharpening and lengthening the “blade” of their “t” shaped sword of adaptation, increasing the depth of their specialty learning and ability, while neglecting the hilt (breadth of knowledge). Oversimplifying a bit, hedgehogs tend to be driven more by their masteries, those things they and others see that they are good at doing, and less by their passions and interests. They constrain and focus their passions to serve their existing masteries, and are often not interested in learning new ones outside their current areas of specialization.

Foxes can easily be drawn to explore too many foresight career skills and paths with too little depth and unclear goals. Hedgehogs can easily explore too few skills and paths, with too much detail. Deep focus on one skill can leave hedgehogs vulnerable later when the technological, economic, or social environment changes.

Lifelong learning is a great habit, but what we choose to learn, and whether that knowledge will ever be used, is a key question both personality types should always ask. There is an S-shaped learning curve, with declining marginal returns, to every new social role, industry, function, and method we learn. Our learning curves typically start out flat (we learn little of value per time spent at first, as we don’t yet understand the domain), then they get steep (we learn a lot with each new experience, an exciting time) and eventually, they start to flatten again, with time or effort. At the top of the S we are finally in the mastery phase, and we can charge our clients the most for our expertise. Figuring out which learning curves to climb (which mastery “blades” to add to our quiver), and climbing them, is a key strategic challenge for both personality types.

If foxes don’t serially specialize, they never reach mastery with anything. They also need to guard against over-applying the many things they know superficially, and being overconfident. As Charles Darwin wryly observed, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”. The more one knows in any specialty, the more qualified and cautious one’s statements should naturally become within it.

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Hedgehog personalities grow much faster to mastery in just about any specialty, due to their impressive focus. But they may need help in picking their specialty, knowing when it is time to change to a new specialty, and in seeing the wider context. They need to guard against over-applying the few things they know very well (i.e. “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail”). If hedgehogs don’t enjoy developing their own strategic thinking and leadership skills, they need partnerships with strategists and leaders who can help them grow in that area, and who’ll also help them best employ their skills.

Management consultant Jim Collins, author of Good to Great (2001), proposes that hedgehogs are consistently better than foxes at building “good-to-great” companies, if they stay focused on the intersection of three things: 1. What can I be best at? 2. What am I passionate about? and 3. What drives my economic engine?

But for startups and serial entrepreneurship, it is critical to have at least a few foxes in top executive roles, for their confidence and willingness to jump in and figure out problems, even with a minimum of subject knowledge, is often critical to success. Entrepreneur Scott Handsaker offers a nice infographic for the fox (picture left). It cites, at the bottom, the immortal quote from the late science fiction author Robert Heinlein seen in Chapter 1: “Specialization is for insects.”

In reality, each of us are of course blends of both hedgehog and fox, the urge to depth or breadth, and each of these mindsets will be dominant for us in different contexts. If you aren’t sure if you are typically more of a hedgehog or a fox, try Tetlock’s thirteen question assessment, posted by Hal Finney at the Overcoming Bias blog.

Again, a great early career goal for both hedgehogs and foxes is to become “T-shaped”, with at least one deep skill you regularly use, as well as a broad hilt of general knowledge and ability. No matter where you start in life, becoming T-shaped will make you adaptive, and is a great base for further career development.

As your experience and mastery mounts, T-shaped people also have opportunities to become “Star-shaped”, practitioners with several different deep skills, all of which they use regularly enough to keep “sharp”. Live long enough, work hard enough, add enough cutting points to your star and you become a polymath (Renaissance person), perhaps the highest skill-based compliment any one of us can get, at least from Robert Heinlein’s perspective. Deciding which new skill to add to your existing repertoire next, and knowing which will best serve your passions and goals, is of course a key life choice.

Make your mastery choices carefully dear readers, as you can’t unchoose them. Again, Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You, 2012 is a great start for tips on making such choices. Joining a foresight development community, and building your own dream team of trusted foresight colleagues and advisors, is another great approach.

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