“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” -Archilochus
I first heard of this quote from the podcast Hidden Brain and it got me thinking about different types of strategic thinking. Perhaps upon reading it, you intuitively associate yourself with one of these animals right away. Or, like me, you are intrigued, and want to learn more…
Archilochus’ quote stands alone in the history books and, therefore, is absent of context. As a result, its meaning has been the subject of much debate. What did Archilochus’ mean by his words and what was the intended application? An illustrative metaphor has emerged from this debate which offers insight into how people think with regard to strategy.
The accepted interpretation is that the hedgehog and the fox are both great survivors and for very different reasons. The fox survives through its cunning tricks that allow it to evade predators – running, hiding, jumping, climbing, etc – and thrive in a changing environment. The hedgehog survives by way of a focused strategy – rolling up in a ball – and implementing it very well.
The hedgehog relates everything to a central vision, one coherent system defined by a single organizing principle. The world is simple to the hedgehog. She is focused on the big picture, driven, and decisive. The hedgehog demands 100% commitment in realizing her vision and does not understand the nuance that could lead to anything less.
The fox, on the other hand, sees the world as complex and lacking simple truths. She pursues many ends, perhaps even unrelated or contradictory. The fox leads a life and entertains ideas that are compatible and conflicting with the existing status quo. She is comfortable with nuance and embraces uncertainty. The fox works at many levels, seizing upon a variety of experiences and opportunities without including or excluding them from any specific vision. It is hard for the fox to commit to any one strategy completely.
One of these approaches may resonate with you. Or you may feel torn between the two. The question is not, are you a fox or a hedgehog? But rather, do you embody the right strategic thinking when the conditions call for it. There is no universal approach to strategic thinking that will address all problem sets.
Your flexibility in adopting different approaches to strategic thinking depending on the situation will help you to adapt in today’s ever-changing environment, to discover new opportunities, and to articulate the strategy that will work best… at least for now.