Can we finally kill the hedgehog?


There is a certain comfort in having our assumptions and interpretations verified by external evidence. We all fall victim to selecting information that reinforces our understanding of the world around us and struggle to accept and integrate knowledge that seems to contradict the natural order. We forgive ourselves our temper tantrums and our occasional selfishness as it "doesn't reflect who we really are". We curate images and stories to share the best aspects of ourselves on Facebook. We dismiss our bad behaviour after too many glasses of wine as an opportunity for growth and learning.

The stories we construct about organizations and businesses fall victim to a similar tendency to summarize and filter information to suit a particular narrative. Too much leadership and innovation literature offers easy answers to extremely complicated problems. We all want to be the heroes of Gladwell's stories and 'blink' to know what to do. Thousands flock to hear Jim Collins speak about some theoretical bulls-eye that marries passion, economics, and mastery. The idea of the hedgehog concept is a particularly pernicious cognitive shorthand that has found homes in far too many boardrooms and consultancy reception areas.

If you're unfamiliar with the concept, the hedgehog is the animal equivalent of a Venn diagram. The promised land of corporate ambition is the intersection of passion, an economic engine, and some activity at which you can be the best. How these three concepts are contained within distinct circles and why the beachfront property at which they intersect remains so narrow is a bit of a mystery. The interdependence of passion, money, and mastery doesn't lend itself to 2D renderings so that aspect is mostly a sidebar. Countless thought leaders and consultants have built their practice on telling companies that they must do one thing and do it well.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that doing one thing and doing it well is a recipe for disaster. Philip Tetlock's rather depressing twenty-year longitudinal study shows that experts were not particularly adept at predicting the outcomes of complex economic and political processes, and although the hedgehog concept has ancient origins, its use as a philosophical tool came from the work of Isaiah Berlin. And Berlin never really intended the intellectual exercise to be taken seriously. In fact, Tetlock's research found that the hedgehogs favored by Jim Collins and countless others performed worse that those that were willing to be flexible (the 'foxes' in Berlin's exercise). In fact, simple regression analysis is a better predictor of future conditions than any one expert model or heuristic.

Truthfully, I don't want to see the hedgehog die. Rather, I wish it would find some friends, spend a bit more time socializing and loosen up enough to start letting other hedgehogs in. Unfortunately, hedgehogs too often nudge and poke other animals out of the room so it can cavort in splendid isolation. While a simple model of everything is attractive, the reality is that we need diverse perspectives interacting with each other if we hope to start generating solutions to intractable and interdisciplinary challenges.

The idea of one 'big idea' is attractive. Decision making is greatly simplified when I only need to answer three questions. Sadly, models are maps, and when we're doing important things we need to rely on more than one interpretation if we want to stay out of danger. A project team or an organization may have a proven and effective way of getting things done. I would argue that introducing new perspectives, new disciplines, and new preferences will make the process harder and more stressful but will also increase the available solution set and offer new opportunities for breakthrough outcomes.

We need to look no further than the Palo Alto Research Center and their efforts to integrate the work of artists into their research through the PARC Artist in Residence Program. Xerox believed that their core business -- documents -- intersected with the products of artists. Bringing in new hedgehogs was a difficult process but helped both artists and researchers move beyond current practice and try something new. Collaboration in videography, online virtual spaces, audio, encoding in images, web navigation, sound sculpture, and video gesturing led to interesting and fruitful products for further exploration. Xerox could have stayed with what it did well, but chose to introduce different passions, approaches, and economic models and evolved as a result.