How cultivating depth and breadth is key for the age of agile.
It’s funny how even ancient ideas can be given new lease of life. It’s a long way from the seventh century BC and the Greek poet Archilochus to a philosophical tract written by philosopher, Isiah Berlin, in 1950s Britain. Nevertheless, it was this fragment of his ancient poetry, "a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing" that underpins Berlin’s famous, often controversial, essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox.
The basic idea of the essay is simple. Berlin uses the hedgehog-fox idea to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: single-minded hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of one, defining idea, and pluralistic foxes, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex philosophical argument, it’s an appealing idea that there are two contrasting ways of approaching the world around us: either as a more focused specialist (hedgehog) or a far-ranging generalist (fox).
Archilochus’ hedgehog made another famous appearance in 2001 when Jim Collins published his seminal business book, Good to Great. Collins’ Hedgehog Concept was used as a shorthand for successful companies who really knew how to stick to the knitting, making the most of the clarity provided by a focus on passion, better-than-the rest ability and key economic drivers. The path to greatness, according to Collins, comes from “focusing solely on what you can potentially do better than any other organization”.
But what, we may ask, do an ancient Greek poet, a 1950s philosopher and a 21st century business thinker have to do with the world of work today. It’s a good question. The answer revolves around our perennial fascination with what makes us successful, and the issue of whether it’s better to nurture either our hedgehog or our fox-like traits to achieve peak performance in our work and our lives, and as we plan our careers.
Cue Malcolm Gladwell and his 2008 book, Outliers, in which he popularised (some say misrepresented) the ‘10,000-hour rule’ based on Anders K Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice. What Gladwell calls “mastery” requires focus and time; at least 10,000 hours of practice is the key to performing at the top of our game – think of the Beatles learning their craft in Hamburg, or Bill Gates programming those early generation computers.
Not so, says David Epstein, whose 2019 book, Range, turns the deliberate practice theory on its head: for many of the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, early and deep specialisation is the exception, not the rule. Rather, they are generalists, sampling a range of interests – even trying and failing – and developing the skills and resilience needed to succeed down the line. That experience tends to make them more creative, more agile and able to make connections that the specialists just don’t see.
Most of the world is ‘not golf’
But maybe the specialist vs generalist/depth vs breadth argument is more complex than a debate about whether we need to be a Tiger Woods, almost born with a golf club in his hands, or a Roger Federer, who tried out a range of sports before opting for tennis. Gladwell himself has defended his argument by placing himself towards the middle of a continuum with pure natural talent at one end and focused deliberate practice at the other.
Epstein, too, admits that much depends on context. His generalists do best in fields that are ‘more complex and unpredictable’, citing the work of psychologist, Robin Hogarth, who differentiates between ‘kind’ learning environments, such as golf or chess, where patterns recur and feedback is unequivocal, and ‘wicked’ environments where patterns are less easy to establish and feedback is unclear or even non-existent.
Epstein’s view is that most of the world is ‘not golf’, the basis of his argument that, when it comes to tackling the unfamiliar – and prevailing – world of the wicked, a broad range of experience and learning is more useful than ‘kind’ environment specialisation. A similar argument has been used to critique Jim Collins’ Hedgehog Concept: that being a corporate hedgehog may have been all very well at the end of the 20th century, but we might need to channel our more agile inner fox to meet the multifarious challenges of the fourth industrial revolution.
The competency trap
For us ordinary mortals, a typical career path will generally mean starting out as specialists, mastering the technical skills we need to build a career. Then, as we become managers and leaders, we need to raise our heads and take a more wide-ranging, strategic worldview. The danger is that it can be tricky to make this shift. Herminia Ibarra has coined the phrase the competency trap to describe our tendency to stick with what we already do well – perhaps another nail in the coffin for corporate hedgehogs who have failed to appreciate the challenges of disruptive technology.
For Ibarra, the same forces are at play when an individual manager or leader lets the operational ‘day job’ get in the way of engagement in more strategic activities. We labour under the false assumption that “what produced our past successes will necessarily lead to future wins”.
We fall into a competency trap when these three things occur:
- We enjoy what we do well, so we do more of it and we get better at it.
- When we allocate more time to what we do best, we devote less time to learning other things that are also important.
- Over time, it gets more costly to invest in learning to do new things.
Many of us define our work in terms of core strengths and skills, but moving up into management and leadership requires us to make the shift from our own functional knowledge to work that depends on guiding other people towards shared goals – the essence of leadership.
Depth and breadth: taking a T-shaped approach
So how can we better prepare ourselves for the transition from functional depth to strategic breadth? According to consultant and coach, Nick Lovegrove, it’s by cultivating what he calls a T-shaped mindset. In his book, The Mosaic Principle, Lovegrove makes the case that we live in a world where deep specialisation – whether in our education systems, business or other professions, such as medicine – is the order of the day. Yet, counterintuitively, this makes us uniquely unprepared for the complex, multidimensional challenges that we face. We’re also taking inherently broad-minded people who are interested in taking the broad view and seeking new experiences and cramming them into specialisms. No wonder we fall prey to Ibarra’s competency trap.
Lovegrove’s argument is that breadth is often better, both for organisations and individuals. This doesn’t mean that we should become ‘jacks-of-all trades’, randomly walking through life with no solid core. That’s where the idea of the T comes in, a visual metaphor for a hybrid of breadth and depth. The vertical stroke of the T represents a depth of skill or experience, Lovegrove’s “intellectual thread” that we develop through study and practical experience.
But this vertical stroke is not enough on its own: we need the horizontal stroke of the T to bring a range of experiences and perspectives to balance out the depth. Lovegrove believes that it’s never too soon – or too late - to develop a T-shaped mindset, and that the theory holds true whether we’re talking about corporate risk-taking or individual purpose.
Isiah Berlin may well have wearied of the attention garnered by The Hedgehog and the Fox. He said: “I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously.” He’s right, though, when he says that “every classification throws light on something". Whether we tend towards depth or breadth, or prefer specialising to being a generalist, knowing our preferences and the pros and cons of both can help us to navigate our careers – especially those tricky transitions – for maximum effect with minimum pain.
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