Business Thinking for the Future: Are You a Fox or a Hedgehog?

Is your business thinking oriented for the future? Do you consider yourself a generalist or a specialist? Are you a fox or a hedgehog?

Approximately 2,700 years ago, the Greek poet Archilochus wrote that “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay “The Fox and the Hedgehog” contrasts hedgehogs that “relate everything to a single, central vision” with foxes who “pursue many ends connected…if at all, only in some de facto way.”

It’s really a story of specialists vs. generalists. We’ve become a society of specialists. Business mentors point to “domain expertise” as an advantage in today’s competitive environment. The common advice is to learn more about your function, acquire “expert” status, and you’ll go further in your career.

But what if this approach is no longer valid? What if the future requires us to be both specialist AND generalist? I recently read an interesting Harvard Business Review blog written by Vikram Mansharamani, “All Hail the Generalist.” I share key excerpts with you here:

For various reasons, though, the specialist era is waning. The future may belong to the generalist. Why’s that? To begin, our highly interconnected and global economy means that seemingly unrelated developments can affect each other.

Secondly, specialists toil within a singular tradition and apply formulaic solutions to situations that are rarely well-defined.

Finally, there appears to be reasonable and robust data suggesting that generalists are better at navigating uncertainty…. Ideological reliance on a single perspective appears detrimental to one’s ability to successfully navigate vague or poorly-defined situations (which are more prevalent today than ever before).

It relates to the cliche, “A man with a hammer is more likely to see nails than one without a hammer.” Mansharamani concludes with this:

The time has come to acknowledge expertise as overvalued. There is no question that expertise and hedgehog logic are appropriate in certain domains (i.e. hard sciences), but they certainly appear less fitting for domains plagued with uncertainty, ambiguity, and poorly-defined dynamics (i.e. social sciences, business, etc.). The time has come for leaders to embrace the power of foxy thinking.

However, I think there is more demand to have both specialist expertise and more generalized systems thinking. Think about the rapidly changing business environment today:

In just the last ten years, the way we search for solutions to problems (i.e. products and services) has changed radically with the web and social media. Although the technology had already been invented, it takes visionary leaders to figure out how existing technology can be applied to make every day lives easier. That’s generalist or foxy thinking.

What do you think? Maybe there’s room for those English Lit and Philosophy majors in your company, after all?