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From Hedgehogs to Whole Systems: An Evolution in Business Principles
March 7, 2014
The story of the hedgehog and the fox, originally conceived in ancient Greece and popularized in the 1950s by philosopher Isaiah Berlin, figures prominently in the business canon as a parable of depth vs. breadth. The most popular version of the tale involves a hungry, wily fox and a slow, simple hedgehog. One expects the fox to devour his prey. But the hedgehog regularly evades death by freezing in place, forming into a ball of unappetizing spikes, too painful a prospect for even the hungriest of foxes. The hedgehog's ability to "know one thing well" prevails over the fox's assiduous advances.
The hedgehog/fox imagery figures prominently in Jim Collins' renowned book, Good to Great, in which Collins gives us The Hedgehog Principle, the notion that great leaders have the ability to discern and relentlessly pursue the one thing that they can be "best in the world at." Adopted in boardrooms and C-suites far and wide, the "What's our Hedgehog" question became a defining agenda item for a generation of corporate leaders pursuing the Grail of Greatness. In hindsight, this was a one-dimensional take on greatness, lacking as it did elements of social responsibility, corporate citizenship and ecological stewardship. Collins' greatness mainly served as a proxy for the other G-word: Growth ... unchecked, metastatic shareholder growth. Meanwhile, and not coincidentally, the furry mammals glorified for their "principles" remained sidelined and left to struggle with the consequences.
In truth there is not a hedgehog on earth that wakes up and exclaims, "I'm going to be great at one thing today." And the hedgehog's purported nemesis, the fox, can hardly be reduced to an anthropomorphized version of the modern-day rapid prototyper. But this does not mean that these animals lack intelligence. To the contrary, plenty of applicable and relevant business counsel exists just outside the boardroom door, if we are willing and wise enough to look. But this requires a shift in orientation in how we view nature. In short, nature cannot be viewed as a warehouse, there for us to pilfer in life and parody in literature. It must be seen as a major wellspring of wisdom, a time-tested model for positive change, and a force that emerges because of, rather than in spite of, human intellect and instinct.
If we take the time to look, we realize that nature provides us with a time-tested R&D lab for re-imagined industry and its contributing forces. The natural world has already mastered renewable energy use, closed production cycles, collaborative networks, sustainable materials, and green chemistry. Underlying these proven successes are principles far more sophisticated than that of Collins' cartoon critter, including rampant resource efficiency, real-time responsiveness, and systems intelligence, among others. These principles enable entire natural "economies" to be not merely productive but resilient and regenerative. In the natural world, the unbridled success trajectory loses relevance. There is no surge toward greatness, no single-minded "hockey stick." In its place, and thank goodness for it, is the slow, barely perceptible spiral of life returning life to itself.
Let's take a closer look at a real hedgehog and fox in order to evolve our business intelligence. First we must expand our view beyond the predator-prey pairing upon which the famous parable is based. This antagonism is in fact a perilous over-simplification of how life works. In reality, the hedgehog and the fox are engaged players in a "food web" that involves not only our proverbial twosome but other characters as well: let's say sparrowhawks, thrushes, greenflies, snails, dandelions and earthworms. In a food web, organisms work together to manufacture, consume, dismantle and then redeploy forms of energy in repeating cycles.
The hedgehog and the fox are competitors at times, just as we commonly see ourselves in business. But they are also intertwined and interdependent members of a wider generative system, just as we are beginning to imagine in the emerging economy. Within a food web, be it ecological or industrial, members of the system occupy different "trophic" levels, as producers, consumers and upcyclers of materials and energy. No food "chains" here, only interdependent and interactive networks. No "raw" materials either, but repurposed ones. And so, on our brief walk outside the office complex, into the habitat of actual hedgehogs and foxes, we dispel yet another myth and discover in its place an empowering truth: Natural production happens in clean cycles, not linear chains, and upcyclers — in collaboration with producers and consumers — play a fundamental role in the economy of life.
The stories that we tell ourselves have tremendous power. As long as we tell tales of one-trick hedgehogs, we will have myopic businesses. As long as we talk about one-way food chains, we will waste and exploit our resources. Our increasingly interdependent economy will require much more of us, and so should the metaphors, mentors and models for our inspiration. The authors and aspirants making claims on greatness would do well to approach our natural world with humility, curiosity, even awe. Only when we see nature for what it truly is — a complex, adaptive, interdependent system — and only when we step into our role as intentional, integrated members of that system, as connected to beehives as we are to business plans, will we fully realize our potential for greatness. Perhaps, in the process, we'll evolve beyond the notion entirely.