Know your foxes from your hedgehogs before you start collaborating

Do you know the one about the fox and the hedgehog? No. Let me gist it for you. A long, long time ago (around 700 BCE) a smart (ancient) Greek man remarked that the fox knows many things and the hedgehog knows one big thing. Fast forward to the 20th century and we can read a related and brilliant essay by Sir Isaiah Berlin “The Hedgehog and the Fox”. It’s worth discussing the essay as is, but for the purpose of the point I intend making, let’s stay with what has generally been accepted, i.e. the hedgehog is about knowing only one thing and the fox epitomises those who know many things. No doubt there are variations on the theme and many different interpretations, but that can be someone else’s task. My point is this; for collaboration to really work well, there has to be a lot of planning that specifically focuses on the kind of people needed in the team. And it helps to know that the people around us are not all foxes or hedgehogs.


What is the relevance of the composition of a collaboration team? I am careful not to stray into discussions about team building because there’s been a lot said about that already. What I am more careful to point out is that there is a difference between creating a team and creating a collaboration team. Especially when we are looking to create what I like to refer to as ‘enhanced collaboration’; meaning that, as opposed to collaboration being part of a value creation strategy, it is the central axis of the entire strategy. This may immediately release some warning signs to any strategically minded manager who understands that collaboration is about advantage; a competitive advantage.

Collaboration comes with a number of well documented benefits. Choosing what really matters in any particular case is essential prep work. Once that is clear; once we know that we are not focusing on making people happy (as collaboration can do) but are more focused on say, the ability of our business to innovate and come up with better ways of creating new product, service or a system etc., we can then start to understand the fine detail of choosing the right team. Essentially, we need to know which move we intend to play before we put the team out. Unavoidably, some people have to be involved because of certain critical skills, experience, or even authority (depending on the organisational structure and culture). But it also becomes clear that if innovation, for instance, is the end goal, then we need to ensure a mix of foxes and hedgehogs. They think differently. To use an analogy by Prof Vaclav Smil, himself a hedgehog of note, some people are ‘diggers of a deeper well’, while others (like Prof Smil) ‘scan all their horizons’. That difference in the ‘type’ of animal we are also informs our approach to knowledge, skills, analytics, decision making, creativity, communication, collaboration, work ethic and so on.

The importance of this simple classification is not so much about precise science as much as it is about mindful and artful appreciation of the simple fact that we can easily overlook vital factors in collaboration planning. The outcomes can be disappointing when we think we have the ‘best’ people but not the ‘right’ combination. Again, this too is often much discussed in HR corridors but not as evidently put in place. The culture of a business can be dominant and therefore detrimental in its flexibility to execute what seems like a straight forward strategy. In an age when we find it increasingly harder to communicate, let alone work, with people from a different ‘tribe’ so to speak, the conscious, deliberate and purposeful crafting of a team that makes all kinds of noises may be one thing that makes your business heads above the rest.

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