In his 1953 essay The Hedgehog & the Fox, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin observed that …
The Fox knows many things, But the Hedgehog knows but one.
Borrowing the line from the Greek poet Archilochus, Berlin was writing about the way we view and interact with the world. Where the Fox seizes upon a variety of experiences and pursuits, the Hedgehog is driven by a singular vision and intent.
Neither approach is correct nor incorrect. What matters most is deciding which vision serves us best, when applied to our particular circumstances at a particular point in time.
The Age of Hyperspecialization
In the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith came down on the side of the Hedgehog when he described what would become one of the central tenants of economic progress: the DIVISION OF LABOR; the process of dividing work into ever smaller tasks performed by ever more specialized workers.
The most famous example was the PIN FACTORY where Smith observed that the process of dividing pin making into 18 discrete actions would result in a dramatic increase in productivity. Much of the prosperity our world now enjoys comes from the productivity gains achieved by this type of division.
So much so that an article in the Harvard Business Review argues that we have now entered an age of HYPERSPECIALIZATION, an era in which knowledge-workers — salespeople, programmers, engineers — will increasingly atomize into ever more complex networks of people performing highly specialized tasks.
Just like the craft workers of the past, many knowledge workers engage in peripheral, often repetitive activities that can be done either better or more cheaply by others.
According to the HBR article, quality improves when more of the work that goes into a final product is done by people with narrow expertise.
The improvement is even greater when the people who specializes in a particular area of a project compete with one another to get it.
Welcome to the “Open Innovation Marketplace”
The Harvard Business Review applauds this process as an “Open Innovation Marketplace,” an unencumbered network of freelancers, contract workers and specialists. Or to frame it in Isaiah Berlin’s terms: an army of Hedgehogs continually selling their singular expertise.
And it works.
By hyper-specializing labor, companies are able to lower costs and improve quality as they bring their products to market faster and more efficiently.
But what about the workers?
Suddenly You’re Competing on Cost
When freelancers and independent contractors compete against one another, the deciding factor is rarely quality. Assuming that the demands of specialization infuse the majority of them with a similar expertise, why one person is chosen over the other usually comes down to cost. And competition based on cost means that what they’re able to charge for a project is continuously driven down.
Freelancers are also on a treadmill. As soon as one job ends, they have to start searching for another. Success on a previous project is no guarantee that you’ll be chosen for the next.
Inability to Adapt to a Changing World
But perhaps the greatest peril a specialist faces is the one endemic to every Hedgehog: the inability to adapt to a changing world.
If hunted by a common predator like a dog, a Hedgehog’s singular skill of rolling up in a ball will be successful. But if the environment changes and a new predator comes along that is not deterred by the sting of its quills, the Hedgehog will almost always fail.
But not the Fox.
Unlike the Hedgehog, the Fox has imbued itself with a variety of skills making it better able to adapt to a changing world. Rather than specialize in one thing, the Fox is a generalist with a wide and ever-expanding base of knowledge.
A Fox is also committed to continuous learning, not simply in one discipline but across a wide range of subjects. Not content with its current experience, a Fox will go outside its own industry searching for best practices that are applicable to a variety of challenges.
In times of economic shifts brought about by new technologies, it’s usually better to be a Fox. Hedgehogs find it hard to adapt to a changing world whereas a Fox is not only prepared but eager for change, seeing it not as a threat but an opportunity.
So, what makes one person a Hedgehog and another a Fox? The answer lies not in how many skills a person acquires but rather the type of skills.
Hedgehogs usually specialize in hard skills. Rather than range wide they burrow deep into a particular discipline, mastering not only the fundamentals but the intricacies.
A Fox, on the other hand, seeks mastery of the softer skills.
Though they rarely show up on job descriptions, a variety of studies show that soft skills are highly valued by employers: Qualities such as Leadership … initiative … problem solving … creativity … teamwork … and communications skills … as well as the emotional intelligence that enables them to work well with others.
All are attributes that enable the Fox to more easily adapt to evolving roles and job descriptions.
Are they attributes that you possess?