Why can't foxes and hedgehogs get along?

Technology companies need more foxes and fewer hedgehogs, according to David Dabscheck. He's referring to Isaiah Berlin's 1953 essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” in which the British scholar adapts the words of a Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

To put it in terms of the modern organization, the hedgehog may be the domain expert focused on a core competency. The fox may be the T-shaped person with cross-disciplinary expertise and interests—and may even be an English major.

Dabscheck in the Boston Globe writes, “Hedgehogs relate everything to a single organizing principle or truth, and foxes maintain a diffusive, even contradictory, outlook. The polarization of pundits and politicians has made our political system a hedgehog’s den for some time, but less recognized is how this dominance has spread to corporations and organizations.”

Unfortunately, he writes, foxes are “…woefully underrepresented, if not on the endangered list altogether….”

Talk of innovation is fashionable among business leaders today, Dabscheck writes, but they “…still run their organizations much as they have always done—prizing the expertise and execution of the hedgehog. The resulting scarcity of fox-like thinking has led to a predictable gap between the professed desire for innovation and results.” He cites a 2013 Accenture survey of executives in which 93% of respondents believed innovation was necessary for long-term success while only 18% thought their approach was delivering a competitive advantage.

Dabscheck suggests we are both foxes and hedgehogs, but corporations today reward our hedgehog mindsets. “If we care about innovation,” he concludes, “an affirmative action plan to cultivate our inner fox is urgently needed.”

Dabscheck is visiting scholar at Columbia Business School and is not writing specifically about engineering. But it's easy to see how new technologies might help a hedgehog engineer unleash his inner fox. What National Instruments calls software designed instruments, for example, could allow an RF or broadband communications domain expert to acquire fox-like FPGA programming capabilities to tailor instrument performance to specific needs.

Dabscheck concludes, “May all your mental menageries be varied and prosperous.”

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