My side project, Double-Loop, is an app and Slack bot for recording and sharing the story of your build-measure learn loops.

While anyone can try it (click the above link), I’m looking specifically to test and craft Double-Loop with a small number of post product-market fit companies. If you’re interested, fill out the below form. Selected participants will play a key role shaping the future functionality of Double-Loop.

impossiblecubeStarting with The Product Management Triangle, I’ve argued that a chief responsibility of product managers is to release the tension surrounding a product. In the PM triangle article, I focused on business model tensions and tensions between teams. But since then, I’ve explored an additional four types of product tension.  This post takes a zoomed out view which also serves as a guide to much of my writing over the last three years.

1. Tensions inherent in the business model

Every product has some degree of tension arising from its business model. Since people would rather not pay for things, UX and monetization are fundamentally at odds. The tension is most inflamed in advertising-based business models where the company makes money by making the user experience worse in adding more ads to the page.

PMs live at the conflict line between UX and monetization and must find ways to manage the tension. For example, native ads mitigate biz model tension by meeting monetization goals while minimizing UX damage. An increasing number of SaaS enterprise companies, like Slack, are charging on a per active user basis. While customers would prefer “free,” this minimizes the tension by ensuring that customers only pay in proportion to the value they receive.

For more, see The Product Management Triangle.

2. Tensions between a product and its environment

Launching a new product is like injecting a foreign object into a stable environment. Sometimes the intrusion is embraced while other times its rejected.

PMs must balance two ways of thinking. On the one hand, companies aspire to “change the world” or “dent the universe” with their product. On the other hand, they must adapt their product according to customer feedback and market signal.

The tension between bending the world versus bending to the world is one of my favorite product management dilemmas.

For more, see The Fundamental Tension in Product.

3. Tensions between predictable and unpredictable game plans

Building a product requires navigating an unpredictable future. Yet the people who fund and resource products often want to see clearly defined development roadmaps and predictable budgets.

We’ve seen the software development world drift from waterfall to agile ways of operating. Waterfall methodology puts up a false facade of certainty regarding the path forward. Agile allows teams to iteratively adapt a product based on incremental learning and external response, but legibility is sacrificed. Stakeholders have trouble planning around a product with an unclear future shape and cost structure.

To manage this tension, PMs must give products the breathing room to evolve organically while providing stakeholders and clients sufficient stability in the future plan.

For more, see Let’s Rethink Product Roadmaps.

4. Tensions between short-term and long-term goals

There are two popular edicts that are actually at odds with each other. On the one hand, startups are told to build MVPs that test core product assumptions as early as possible. On the other hand, startups are advised to build platforms that take on a life beyond any single application.

PMs must navigate when to ship a lightweight MVP app and when to invest in a platform. Either approach can go wrong. A failed MVP could discourage a team from following a lucrative direction. A platform can be expensively built to never find its killer app.

For more, see Lean & Fat Product Thinking.

5. Tensions between religious and scientific mentalities

Inherent in many of the above tensions is a conflict from two ways of thinking about products. Lean startup methodology rides a wave of scientific product thinking focused on falsifying hypotheses and split testing. Yet, prominent product visionaries like Steve Jobs operate more like religious leaders who stay true to a mission regardless of what the world throws at them.

Product managers strive to articulate a “north star” that inspires an almost religious following. But to reach that north star, they must cultivate a scientific mindset where beliefs are discarded when disproven.

For more, see The Risk of Scientific Creative Process.

6. Tensions between employees

All of the above tensions can lead to clashes between team members. The sales team clashes with designers when both parties have different incentives under the business model. Or one team can be frustrated with another team who isn’t, in their eyes, sufficiently scientific in their approach. To manage these types of tensions, the PM must clearly articulate how the company is approaching all the above tension. This provides the rationale for how conflicts between team members should be handled.

However, the worse types of tension I’ve seen is between the identities of team members; when two people have different intuitions for how to solve a single problem. I’ve found that for teams to thrive, everyone needs their own swim lane so they aren’t competing with others over sacred turf. Yet swim lane differentiation can’t come at the price of collaboration. You need people from different swimlanes working together to accomplish singular objectives.

For more, see The Product Management Triangle.

Thanks for reading this post! Check out my project, Double-Loop, that strives to improve the product development process by recording the story of your build-measure-learn loops.

 

 

 

 

Double-Loop is an app for predicting and recording the impact of your launches. It enhances your ability to make strong bets moving forward.

The principle of Double-Loop is that your product development process will continually improve if you enact the following key behaviors.

Behavior #1: After each launch or event related to your product, record the context and its expected impact.

Consequence: You will design each new iteration with clearer objectives and measurable hypotheses.

Behavior #2:  When time passes after a launch, loop back to capture the results relative to the expected impact.

Consequence: You will discover false assumptions in your thinking and improve your ability to craft successful launches moving forward.

Behavior #3: Allow all team members to read and author the history of your product.

Consequence: Your company’s collective knowledge of the product will increase. New team members will quickly get up-to-speed with the team thought process.

Most teams, under business pressure, neglect these behaviors and fail to maximize learning. Double-Loop fixes this.

Your Double-Loop Timeline

To make this concrete, Double-Loop enables you to build a timeline of launches and other events related to your product (marketing campaigns, news events, etc). For each event, you can record the description, expected impact, and results. To illustrate, here’s a portion of a real timeline.

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Deployment integration

Through integrations with GitHub and your deployment process, events are automatically added to your Double-Loop timeline when you ship code. You can set the importance of each event to elevate critical launches and minimize noise from minor tweaks.

The @Doubleloop Slack Bot

While many of us have a desire to be rigorous in our learning process, the relentless onslaught of urgent priorities leaves us little time. The Double-Loop Slack bot enables you to quickly create and update events in Slack, where you’re already living. The Slack bot makes learning easy and contagious.

Every time you ship code, the Double-Loop Slack bot will prompt you to add an event to your timeline.

 

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You can save new information to Double-Loop directly from Slack.

 

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The Slack bot makes it fast to update old events.

 

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Enter the /doubleloop Slack command whenever something meaningful happens.

 

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True organizational learning requires behavioral change. The Double-Loop app and Slack bot make learning seamless and habitual, providing a seed for cultural transformation within your company.

Wanna give Double-Loop a Try?

–> Go to the new home page

In Images of Organization, Gareth Morgan describes corporate DNA as “the visions, values, and sense of purpose that bind an organization together…”

Leaders face diminishing control as their organizations grow. DNA appears to be a good metaphor for how they can encode their core principles into the minds of their employees at scale.

I like how the DNA metaphor likens companies to species. Species persist while their members and environmental conditions change. Similarly, companies must thrive as employees come and go, as customers are acquired and lost, and as technology is refactored. Species and companies preserve life and identity while their elements radically change.

Yet, the DNA metaphor feels limited when applied in the corporate sense. Current employees don’t literally give birth to new hires, so how are genetics passed between contributors? Can you spread DNA through PowerPoint slides?

To improve on the DNA metaphor, let’s look at the broader playbook of species survival. Genetics is just one of the ways species pass along survival advantages from one generation to the next. In the Democracy of Objects, philosopher Levi Bryant writes:

… it’s worth recalling that Darwin nowhere specifies what the mechanism of inheritance is, only that in order for natural selection to take place there must be inheritance. There is thus no reason to suppose that genes alone are the sole mechanism of inheritance.

Organisms alter their environments to enhance their future prospects. There is a class of animals known as niche constructors who change their environment to suit their purposes. Beavers build dams and birds assemble nests.

For some species, survival is predicated on the non-genetic creations of their predecessors. Bryant quotes developmental systems theorists, Griffiths and Gray:

Certain aphid species reliably pass on their endosymbiotic Buchnera bacteria from the maternal symbiont mass to either eggs or developing embryo. The bacteria enable their aphid hosts to utilize what would otherwise be nutritionally unsuitable host plants. Aphids that have been treated with antibiotics to eliminate the bacteria are stunted in growth, reproductively sterile, and die prematurely.

Bryant explains:

The point here is that the Buchnera bacteria is not a part of the aphid’s genome, but nonetheless plays a significant role in the development of the phenotype. Far from the genes already containing information in the form of a blueprint of what the organism will turn out to be, genes are one developmental causal factor among a variety of others.

Key takeaway: to perpetuate your values, build them into your environment.

Here’s a simple example from my startup. We connected our post-purchase customer survey with our Slack communication system. Whenever a customer submits the survey, the Typeform app posts the response to a Slack channel where everyone sees it. Notifications are sent if the Net Promoter Score is beneath a certain threshold.

The result is that a baseline of real-time customer awareness is automatically provided for new employees. New team members don’t need to learn, “we value customer feedback” and then consciously seek it out. Instead, customer feedback is already there in the environment. Employees “inherit” an advantage out the gate that doesn’t require DNA transfer.

What examples of non-genetic inheritance have you seen work at your company?

 

 

 

Introspective product builders can find themselves trapped in a paradox between (A) the product-driven Steve Jobs mentality of bending the world to your vision, and (B) the customer-driven lean startup mindset of adapting our products to the environment and the marketplace.

This fundamental tension in product mirrors an ancient philosophy puzzle.

The product-driven mindset echoes an anti-realist branch of epistemology where the world is a construction of our minds. Anti-realists emphasize how reality is malleable, something that can be transformed by language and concepts.

The customer-driven approach, in contrast, echoes a realist philosophy. Epistemic realists believe that there is an absolute world that exists independently of us. It is the job of philosophers and scientists, they say, to conform our mental models to the external reality.

It’s easy to say that the product-driven / customer-driven paradox is a yin-yang that requires a balancing act as opposed to a resolution. However, as someone who perpetually yearns for maximum strategic clarity, I find “balance” to be an unsatisfying answer. I’d rather find a way around the ambiguity.

In The Democracy of Objects, philosopher Levi Bryant argues that the world views of both epistemological realists and anti-realists rest upon their bifurcation of subject and object. Bryant writes:

… within the Modernist schema that drives both epistemological realism and epistemological anti-realism, the world is bifurcated into two distinct domains: culture and nature. The domain of the subject and culture is treated as the world of freedom, meaning, signs, representations, language, power, and so on. The domain of nature is treated as being composed of matter governed by mechanistic causality. Implicit within forms of theory and philosophy that work with this bifurcated model is the axiom that the two worlds are to be kept entirely separate, such that there is to be no inmixing of their distinct properties.

Both realist and anti-realist mental models anthropomorphize nature such that objects can only be understood in human terms. Their debate is only about whether or not human representations correlate to an absolute reality. Anti-realists hold that there is no such thing beyond our constructions, while realists aspire to accurately map an independently real external environment. Bryant distills the contention as the X in the following diagram.

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 11.40.25 PMBryant elaborates:

… this mode of distinction leads us to ignore the role of the nonhuman and asignifying in the form of technologies, weather patterns, resources, diseases, animals, natural disasters, the presence or absence of roads, the availability of water, animals, microbes, the presence or absence of electricity and high speed internet connections, modes of transportation, and so on. All of these things and many more besides play a crucial role in bringing humans together in particular ways…

Put in this light, both the realist and anti-realist philosophies seem ill-equipped to grapple with the realms of tech products where people and technologies are tangled together.

Alternatively, Bryant argues for an object-oriented ontology where human and non-human objects, first and foremost are objects. Wikipedia defines this philosophy as a “… school of thought that rejects the privileging of human existence over the existence of nonhuman objects”  The door then opens to examining, not just how machines can mimic human systems, but how all forms of human and non-human objects interact with each other. Bryant writes:

… where the anti-realists have obsessively focused on a single gap between humans and objects, endlessly revolving around the manner in which objects are inaccessible to representation, object-oriented philosophy allows us to pluralize this gap, treating it not as a unique or privileged peculiarity of humans, but as true of all relations between objects whether they involve humans or not. In short, the difference between humans and other objects is not a difference in kind, but a difference in degree. Put differently, all objects translate one another. Translation is not unique to how the mind relates to the world. And as a consequence of this, no object has direct access to any other object.

While I’ve barely touched the surface, object-oriented ontology feels like a solid foundation for product thinking. The extreme forms of both the product-driven and customer-driven mindsets give primacy to the single problem of how a company integrates with its external environment. It’s liberating to let go of this bifurcation and delve into the multiplicity of systems that require integration.  Product builders must integrate teams, technologies, customers, and business models who are all simultaneously interacting with society, culture, nature, and the economy.

[People] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.

– Karl Marx (quoted by Levi Bryant)

Cognitive biologists Maturana and Valera argue that the defining quality of living things is that they are “autopoietic.” Autopoiesis literally means self-creation. Living things, Maturana and Valera explain, are able to regenerate their own parts, like how the cells of an animal die and regenerate or how a species reproduces.

Autopoiesis is an intriguing lens through which to understand the aspirations of tech companies.

To examine what it means for a tech company to be autopoietic, let’s consider two systems on which it depends: its product and its customers. An autopoietic company maintains a circular loop where the team builds the product, customers use it, and the team is paid to keep iterating. This is otherwise described as product-market fit.

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 10.02.36 AM

Startups are not born autopoietic — they are bootstrapped by investment and the passion of their founders. If these elements dry up before product-market fit is achieved, the team stops building and the company ceases.

Startups who achieve autonomous life remain vulnerable like organisms. The departure of a leader, a shift in the technical landscape, or the collapse of a market can lead to a company’s demise.

The most ambitious founders want more than a brief period of success: they envision autopoietic institutions that will thrive after their departure, riding waves of technological and social change.

To achieve longevity, companies must behave more like species than organisms. Traits for survival must evolve across generations in the midst of environmental flux. Great companies maintain their circular loop of creation as employees are fired and hired, as customers are acquired and lost, and as technology is refactored. They preserve life and identity while their elements radically change.

Companies are often advised to define their “DNA.” Genetics is an apt metaphor for the passing of values to new hires. However, genetics is not the only mechanism for passing down survival advantages. In the Democracy of Objects, philosopher Levi Bryant writes:

… it’s worth recalling that Darwin nowhere specifies what the mechanism of inheritance is, only that in order for natural selection to take place there must be inheritance. There is thus no reason to suppose that genes alone are the sole mechanism of inheritance.

Organisms alter their environments to enhance their future prospects. There is a class of animals known as niche constructors who change their environment to suit their purposes. Beavers build dams and birds assemble nests.

For some species, survival is predicated on the non-genetic creations of their predecessors. Bryant quotes developmental systems theorists, Griffiths and Gray:

Certain aphid species reliably pass on their endosymbiotic Buchnera bacteria from the maternal symbiont mass to either eggs or developing embryo. The bacteria enable their aphid hosts to utilize what would otherwise be nutritionally unsuitable host plants. Aphids that have been treated with antibiotics to eliminate the bacteria are stunted in growth, reproductively sterile, and die prematurely.

Bryant explains:

The point here is that the Buchnera bacteria is not a part of the aphid’s genome, but nonetheless plays a significant role in the development of the phenotype. Far from the genes already containing information in the form of a blueprint of what the organism will turn out to be, genes are one developmental causal factor among a variety of others.

The notion of non-genetic inheritance suggests that organizations can do more than pass down corporate values to new employees through training and culture. Companies can plant survival advantages in their environment; that is, within systems that exist independently of the team members themselves.

Here’s a simple example from my startup. We connected our post-purchase customer survey with our Slack communication system. Whenever a customer submits the survey, the Typeform app posts the response to a Slack channel where everyone sees it. Notifications are sent if the Net Promoter Score is beneath a certain threshold.

The result is that a baseline of real-time customer awareness is automatically provided for new employees. New team members don’t need to learn, “we value customer feedback” and then consciously seek it out. Instead, customer feedback is already there in the environment. Employees “inherit” an advantage out the gate that doesn’t require DNA transfer.

The circular loop of product creation is bi-directional. Not only must the team build the product, but the product must build the team. Long lasting products must be designed to perturb the team when something needs to be changed.

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 10.10.27 AM

Constructing environmental survival advantages helps companies increase longevity through autopoiesis. However, a system’s achievement of autopoiesis isn’t necessarily good for the world at large. Maturana and Valera argue that the only goal of autopoietic systems is to maintain their circular loops of self-creation. Regardless of the mission and intentions of the founders, the most successful companies take on a life of their own, a life who’s overall impact on connected systems is unpredictable.

I’m struck by how startups state their intention to “change the world” or “dent the universe.” Changes and dents, of course, can have both positive and negative impacts. Autopoietic systems created climate change and fake news.

Note: Thanks to Jordan Peacock for nudging me down the autopoiesis road and pointing me to Levi Bryant.

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.

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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.