Every great organization is made up of people with two distinct ways of knowing. Following the famous Isaiah Berlin essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox" (1953), there are foxes, who are fascinated by the infinite variety of things. And there are hedgehogs, who relate everything to a single, organizing system or idea. There is no right or wrong to these fundamentally different ways of knowing and the effectiveness and vitality of an organization is often revealed in how these two approaches co-exist.
“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”
Archilochus (680 BC–645 BC)
To be in service to an organization, whether with money or time, it helps to identify the quality of the relationship between the hedgehogs and the foxes and determine how their unique skills advance progress toward the goals the nonprofit is trying to achieve.
In his influential management book, Good to Great, Jim Collins posits and develops “the Hedgehog Concept.” He argues that an organization’s move from good to great is done by understanding the intersection of three circles: 1) what you are deeply passionate about, 2) what you can be the best in the world at, and 3) what best drives your economic or resource engine.
Hedgehogs are measurers. They know, right down to the tips of their quills, that it is only by careful measurement and related meticulous record keeping, that the organization’s varied experiences – all that brilliant work that the organization is doing out that there in the world – will only fulfill its potential for consistency and wider impact if it is measured, recorded, deliberated, and carried forward into improvement actions, which will then also be measured. And so a virtuous cycle of act-measure-reflect-improve is closed. While hedgehogs can be at play with the best of them, it has this additional, nagging imperative to make sense of it all, to reveal the deeper pattern.
Foxes are skilled, smart, and want to be out there getting the job done. But on their own, they can never realize their full potential without hedgehogs. There is so much out there in the world that beckons! Measuring, recording, and systematizing is not as interesting as the work itself.
In my experience, there are more foxes than hedgehogs, and most organizations are made up overwhelmingly of foxes.
What does this suggest for how philanthropic supporters engage with organizations?
First, you can help the foxes and hedgehogs work together. You can make sure that the organization’s evaluation and learning efforts are fully budgeted for, and indicate through guided curiosity that you particularly value this aspect of their work. This means asking about the path they see to long-term, systemic change, and about how they will build the evidence required to discover the deeper patterns.
Second, in your conversations with the organization, invite people to share with you what they understand about these two ways of knowing and how they play out in the organization. The top .01% of the thousands and thousands of meetings I’ve endured in my life were marked by one thing. It is what band leader Bruce Springsteen calls the magic that happens when one plus one equals three. In our work, it’s when people with different ways of knowing feel the power in their differences.
Foxes and hedgehogs working brilliantly together and that’s an indicator of high performance to bet on. I believe that organizations that have this fox-with-hedgehog unity are accelerating on the path from good to great.