The Hedgehog Versus The Fox In Business

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Fox Vs Hedgehog
Business is a risky affair. Just as much as there is a possibility that an entrepreneur's efforts will bring them no return, there is also potential that they will succeed. This is an inescapable fact of business but there are strategies that people employ to minimize the risk of failure.

Two of those strategies is the specialist versus the generalist approach. With the specialist approach, the entrepreneur focuses on one main thing and strives to do that particular thing very well. The generalist on the other hand will spread their efforts across several pursuits in the hopes of minimizing risk by diversifying their efforts.

The specialist aims to concentrate their efforts on a singular business activity rather than spreading themselves thin on several fronts whilst the generalist takes the approach of avoiding placing their eggs in one basket.

Granted these two approaches are polar opposites of each other and cannot be reconciled. But then which approach is better? Is it better to be a specialist and focus on a singular business effort or is it better to diversify risk like the generalist?

The Hedgehog and The Fox

When having a discussion around the specialist versus the generalist in business, the analogy of the hedgehog and the fox from the Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin in the mid-1900s comes to mind. Berlin’s paper on the subject can be traced to ideas from an Ancient Greek poet, Archilochus, who is quoted as saying, “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing”.

A fox is cunning, fast and always on the move. It devices may strategies to outsmart its hunters but often gets caught. The hedgehog on the other hand has stuck to one strategy. When under attack from the fox it rolls into a spiny ball and outsmarts the fox every time even with its cunning.

From an ideological point of view the analogy of the hedgehog and the fox represents two camps of individuals with distinct ways of thinking. The hedgehog can be seen as an individual who sticks to one big idea and works on executing that idea well. The fox on the other hand can be seen as the individual who employs different strategies for different problems.

The Debate

The raging debate that goes on around the analogy of the hedgehog and the fox is trying to decide who is better. There are obviously certain advantages to being one over the other and also disadvantages that come with both approaches.

I am bringing up the analogy to be understood in light of pursuing business. As a businessman or businesswoman, does it ultimately pay to be a fox or you are better served being a hedgehog?

One way of looking at it would be on considering how to invest one’s resources in business when investing money, time and effort. As a business person, you might decide to start several businesses and spread your time, effort and finances proportionally across the various businesses. This would be the fox approach.

Another approach is to focus on a singular business idea. In that case you would dedicate all your resources to building a single business but you commit to dedicate all your efforts in making that single business work.

There is an argument for diversifying your resources into several businesses. The main advantage is that you minimize risk of complete failure. If you have many businesses and some of them fail, at least you will have the others to fall back on.

Whilst the fox approach in investing resources for a business might work, it also has some drawbacks when compared to the hedgehog approach. When you spread your attention over several activities, you also run the risk of spreading yourself thin.

Doing One Thing Well

The debate around who is better, the hedgehog versus the fox, is difficult to settle because most of the time whether you are a hedgehog or a fox depends on personality. My personal view is that I excel as a hedgehog and maybe I can persuade you to see things my way.

The hedgehog has one defining characteristic-consistency. I have found that I am able to stick to projects over the long term and do not easily get distracted. This happens to such an extent that if I spread myself around several activities, I have found,  it can turn out to be distracting.

While other people excel at jumping around several ideas in business, I prefer to stick to one thing and work hard towards excelling at the one thing. The thing I have chosen in business is web design and development. I would consider it a distraction if I had to go into the hairdressing business for example.

Of course this does not mean that I have no intention of getting involved in other businesses aside from the one to do with web design and development. I am particularly talking about being involved in the daily activities of such other businesses. 

I for example will be willing to invest in a hairdressing business if it is viable as long as I am not involved in its daily operations. Again here, I will only be willing to make such investment if my primary business does not need the invested financial resources.

Tyler Perry, in a recorded clip I was listening to talked about water for a seed. He talked about how you should focus on a singular goal and compared it to watering a seed. He said it is better to narrow your focus to one thing instead of having many things which he equated to many seeds in which case you will not have enough water to go around. This is the ethos of the hedgehog in business.

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