It’s an idea more than 2,500 years old. “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” First attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus, it’s a maxim that Isaiah Berlin echoed in his 1953 essay The Hedgehog and the Fox. Some people look at the world through one big, specific lens; others chase all kinds of different ideas.
The hedgehog/fox question is a way to categorize how different artists, philosophers, and scientists think. But it’s also a great way to think about the way you, and your team members, approach specific tasks. Recognizing your specific nature will help you tackle problems and organize your workflow better, and the same goes for the people around you.
Hedgehogs tend to dig in
Let’s say you’re about to wrap up a big project you’ve been working on for months. Suddenly, as deadline approaches, your client pulls the rug out from under you and demands an entirely new approach. Something hasn’t been clicking for them, or they’re suddenly excited about a different angle. How do you react?
If you’re a hedgehog, you might stick to your guns and argue for the original pitch. That’s not so much stubbornness as it is a commitment to solving problems using one unifying principle. Hedgehogs are classically seen as good bosses because of their ability to keep a large mission in mind.
“The hedgehogs are more the big idea people, more decisive,” according to UC Berkley professor Philip Tetlock, who has tried to define the pros and cons of both cognitive profiles. “Most MBA programs, they’d probably be viewed as better leadership material.” He cites Don Laub, a surgeon who organized trips for colleagues to help children with cleft palates, as a good example of a hedgehog whose single-mindedness was put to good use.
But hedgehogs are also less adaptable and can be single-tracked in their thinking. That’s where foxes come in.
Smart like a fox
A fox’s strategy is better suited to a more chaotic environment. In the fast-paced business world, rigidity and unwillingness to think outside the box can slow your team down or make you less open to new ideas from colleagues. That’s not a problem for foxes.
Tetlock’s study found that during the 2008 financial crisis, the best forecasters who saw trouble approaching were analysts exhibiting fox-like behavior. They were “self-critical, eclectic thinkers who were willing to update their beliefs when faced with contrary evidence, were doubtful of grand schemes and were rather modest about their predictive ability,” he said.
Hedgehogs tend to go by what’s worked in the past and favor a data-based approach, while foxes are more willing to break the mold and trust their instincts. If a client approaches you looking for a new approach and you reply within an hour pitching ten different ideas rather than trying to talk them out of it, you’re a fox.
The strengths and weaknesses of the hedgehog
A more conservative way of thinking might make you less adaptable to change. But that ancient Greek poet picked hedgehogs as his example for a reason: they’re very good at playing to their strengths (in the animal’s case, using their spines whenever necessary).
If you have a more hedgehog-like way of thinking, you probably are better suited to fixed environments (slower-moving businesses where established formulas are embraced). Data is a strong suit for you: look at the numbers as much as you can, because they’ll help you make the safest decisions possible.
Hedgehogs have one way of defending themselves: curling up into a ball. If you’re a workplace hedgehog, you’ll often prefer to duck and cover in times of great uncertainty, sticking to what you know, and ascribing everything to your favorite “big idea.” But if things stay chaotic, it’s best to solicit advice from other team members, who might help offer perspective you’d struggle to find otherwise.
Foxes: Go big and/or go home
Think of it this way: foxes might not be right every time, but they can learn and evolve from their mistakes. If you’re a fox, you’re more of a risk-taker, someone who’s happy to throw a wild idea out there and take a chance on it failing. In the tech world, Microsoft is a hedgehog while Apple is a fox, with the latter having its ups and downs as it adjusted its strategy to greater success.
Listen to everyone around you and search around for new strategies to old problems. If the data doesn’t back something up, don’t automatically dismiss it; there’s a lot of value in trying new things. Think of it as a Swiss army knife approach—versatile and incredibly helpful.
But a relentless need to tackle every problem from ten different angles can be a time-suck. The flaw of the fox is that they can sometimes be too pragmatic. Looking for the complexity and nuance in every task makes sense, but being efficient about it is important too.
How do you tell?
Maybe you already know if you’re a hedgehog or a fox. But it’s a more complicated question than the simple binary suggests. Hedgehogs are often more strictly ideological, in either direction, while foxes can more centrist and self-doubting. The way you behave in your personal life may not reflect your thinking in the business world
Ask yourself a few simple questions:
- Do you see competition as threatening or inspiring?
- Do you favor best practices or try to avoid formulas?
- Do you answer questions simply, or tend to ramble?
- Do you prefer established data, or newer technologies?
- Are your beliefs important to you, or always changing?
If you tend towards the former, you’re thinking like a hedgehog; the latter responses are those of a fox. There’s no wrong answers here (although a hedgehog might think that there is). It’s just a different way of looking at the world, and your way of solving problems at work. Either way, it’s better to know yourself—and know your where your strengths lie, so you can lean on them and balance them out.