The Fox-Hedgehog Collaboration Loop

The dichotomy of the fox and the hedgehog is fascinating, in part, because it gets at a paradox we face in trying to achieve our goals. On the one hand, we need to be monomaniacal hedgehogs to relentlessly execute a vision. On the other hand, we need the fox’s open-mindedness and sound judgment to fit our plans with an uncertain environment.

Hedgehogs and foxes are often pitted against each other in competition. In this post, however, I’m going to propose a model for how the two mentalities can work together, intertwined in the creative process. The ability to strategically mix the hedgehog and fox cognitive styles, either on a team or within your skull, is critical for innovation.

The Fox-Hedgehog Metaphor

The fox-hedgehog philosophy started with the words of Archilochus, an ancient greek poet.

“a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing”

– Archilochus

In a fight, the cunning fox deploys a diversity of strategies while the hedgehog has one defense, curling up into a ball. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin unleashes the metaphoric power in his essay The Hedgehog and the Fox.

Berlin describes how hedgehogs “… relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance…”

Foxes, in contrast, “…  lead lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal; their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.”

Hedgehogs commit to a single framework for how the world works while foxes dance across many models.

It’s tempting to place thinkers in one profile or the other. Berlin says that Plato, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche are hedgehogs while Shakespeare, Aristotle, and James Joyce are foxes.

It’s also interesting to consider which cognitive profile is better for different purposes. Philip E. Tetlock’s research indicates that foxes are better than hedgehogs at predicting geopolitical events (see my last post). Jim Collins says that hedgehogs are better leaders. “They know how to simplify a complex world into a single, organizing idea—the kind of basic principle that unifies, organizes, and guides all decisions.”

A Collaboration Model

While many us fit one profile better than the other, there’s the intriguing possibility that we, individually or in teams, could metamorphize between fox and hedgehog mentalities with strategic intent. The most successful innovators, it seems, can nimbly toggle between these two modes within a single problem space.

With this diagram, I’ve depicted what a fox-hedgehog collaboration process might look like.

screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-11-21-52-pm

Each segment of the loop corresponds to a component of the cognitive cycle described by American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce as summarized by computer scientist John F. Sowa. (Thanks to Joseph Kelly for the tip!) Let’s walk through the loop.

  1. We form a theory for how the world works.
  2. We deduce how to apply the theory to a particular context.
  3. We predict the results of a planned action.
  4. We perform the action.
  5. Through induction, we learn from the resulting data and experience.
  6. We accumulate new knowledge.
  7. Given our new understanding, we use abduction to make the leap to a new theory based on a hunch or a guess.

In the Hedgehog-Fox Collaboration Loop, each animal owns half of the loop with two handoff points.

Theory, given its reductive and abstract nature, is clearly hedgehog territory. Theories rest upon Big Ideas that, in startup terms, exist in the form of visions or Thielian secrets. They roughly take the form, “By organizing around [insert Big Idea], we will [insert social mission].”

Many startup founders don’t think of their Big Ideas as “theories.” Their visions, to them, feel more like inevitabilities than hypotheses to be validated. However, reframing a hedgehog’s vision as a “theory” is a key step towards creating an environment where hedgehogs and foxes can collaborate. Theories are falsifiable. While leaders must be confident, they must have the humility to subject their brain children to testing.

Given a theory for how to enact world change, innovators must deduce the implications in a particular environment or market. Hedgehogs, masters of their theories, have a role to play in converting their ideas to actionable strategies. Foxes, however, are creatively advantaged in the planning process. By spotting cross-domain patterns, foxes can apply foreign techniques well-suited to the problem at hand. See this example of how an algorithm for interpreting telescope images was applied to breast cancer identification.

In evolved hedgehog-fox relationships, prediction is a point in the cognitive cycle where the fox can say “no.” As I mentioned above, Tetlock’s research shows that Foxes are better forecasters than Hedgehogs. Foxes can predict that a proposed action is so unlikely to succeed that it should not even be attempted, like a general refusing to accept the king’s order to attack at the wrong time. Foxes should decide which endeavors are mostly likely to yield the greatest benefit at the lowest cost.

Assuming acceptance of the Hedgehog-defined mission, foxes are best equipped to cleverly implement the plans. When reality hits, optimal action requires situational awareness and agility. Foxes can adjust tactics based on relatively unfiltered, malleable views of their changing environments.

The value of each action we perform is multiplied if we can learn from the results. Hedgehogs have a tendency to over-filter empirical evidence. Data that doesn’t fit the hedgehog’s model is ignored. Thus, we need foxes to own the inductive reasoning process. Foxes will pluck out interesting insights regardless of how conveniently they fit within the active paradigm.

Induction provides the ingredients for, as Sowa puts it, the “knowledge soup” in the cognitive cycle. The multi-model-minded foxes craft a knowledge soup that is diverse in flavors and textures. When the hedgehog re-enters the picture at the knowledge segment of the loop, they will encounter unfamiliar elements. The fox keeps the hedgehog’s thinking fresh.

In his discussion of hybridizing fox and hedgehog thinking, Venkatesh Rao writes that “The trick is to listen to everything, but also say no to almost everything…  But once in a while, the fox half decides to pass something along to the hedgehog half, and the latter trusts the intel enough to change course.”

We saw earlier that foxes should say “no” to implementing some plans proposed by the hedgehog. Conversely, the hedgehog should say “no” to reacting to much of the new information supplied by the fox.

Yet, sometimes a foxy insight will penetrate the hedgehog’s stingy filter, exposing a flaw in the hedgehog’s model. In the collaboration loop, hedgehogs use abductive reasoning to form and revise their theories to accommodate the world illuminated by the fox, leaping to each new iteration based on a hunch or guess (see Joseph Kelly’s discussion of abductive reasoning and startups). A hedgehog’s passion for its Big Idea is a driving force of abduction. A singular focus propels the hedgehog to make necessary adjustments without losing the gravitational weight of the original vision.

Individuals and Teams

The hedgehog-fox collaboration loop can be applied to your own thought process or to a team workflow.

Venkatesh Rao invented the term “foxhog” to describe individuals who can combine fox and hedgehog thinking. A foxhog, Rao writes, is “A miraculous beast that turns uncertainty into certainty.”

One of my favorite examples of foxhog innovation is Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, according to Arthur Koestler’s account in The Act of Creation. Gutenberg, in hedgehog fashion, fixated on a singular goal to print copies of the bible at scale. In fox fashion, he temporarily let go of his mission to enjoy the wine harvest where he stumbled upon the wine press. Gutenberg’s eureka moment occurred after his fox half told his hedgehog half about a mechanic of the winepress that could be applied to reliably print with movable type. I made a maze to tell this story.

I consider myself to be a natural hedgehog who is learning to be foxier over time.

My default mode is to survey the world with an eye towards exploiting new information for my goals. As a product manager, the products I work on become organizing principles for much of my cognition. Rao says that “hedgehogs have lots of books 5% read (judged by their cover), and a few 300% read (repeatedly and closely re-read).” This is me.

But I feel liberated to know that the best way to achieve my hedgehog dreams is, on occasion, to forget about them and enjoy the world as a fox, without an agenda. In doing so I can improve my judgment and eat yummier knowledge soup.

I also try to partner with foxes. Assuming we can’t all be perfect fox-hedgehog hybrids, we can at least aspire to apply both cognitive styles in aggregate on teams. To be productive, hedgehogs should recognize they need foxes and vice versa.

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