Opinion

opinion | David Dabscheck

Silicon Valley needs more foxes

istockphoto; heather hopp-bruce/globe staff

Earlier this year, Silicon Valley giants — including Google, Yahoo, and Twitter — all announced that their workforces were mostly male and white or Asian. Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, termed the lack of gender and racial diversity “pretty depressing” and rightly called for more gender and racial diversity in tech and throughout the economy. Little noticed, however, is another group woefully underrepresented, if not on the endangered list altogether — foxes.

In his famous 1953 essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” the British scholar Isaiah Berlin used the words of a Greek poet — “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” — to distinguish between two fundamental ways of seeing the world. Hedgehogs relate everything to a single organizing principle or truth, and foxes maintain a diffusive, even contradictory, outlook. The polarization of pundits and politicians has made our political system a hedgehog’s den for some time, but less recognized is how this dominance has spread to corporations and organizations.

Whether we look at financial services or government agencies, hedgehogs are unquestionably, to mix metaphors, top dog. Employees are expected to have the same progressive experience in that “one big thing” and generally behave much like the others in their team, department, or company. Foxes that have jumped from discipline to discipline in order to learn many things — yet followed no neat trajectory (and are unsure trajectories even exist) — are a rare sight.

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Unlike racial and gender diversity, this is not a question of fairness and morality, and neither viewpoint is “better” than the other. Hedgehogs bring deep domain expertise, and the increasing complexity of our workplaces has placed an understandable premium on their concentrated mastery. Conversely, the natural habitat of foxes is innovation, which depends on the ability to mix preexisting and often widely divergent elements into a new creative combination. A fox’s disparate orientation more readily allows this cross-fertilization to occur and follow Steve Jobs’s deceptively simple observation, “Creativity is just about connecting things.”

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While “innovation” is rapidly becoming de rigueur among today’s business people, fashionable in the same way “Total Quality Management” marked the 1990s, leaders still run their organizations much as they have always done — prizing the expertise and execution of the hedgehog. The resulting scarcity of fox-like thinking has led to a predictable gap between the professed desire for innovation and results. A 2013 survey by the consulting firm Accenture of more than 500 executives revealed that hedgehogs have no clothes: A whopping 93 percent of respondents believed their company’s long-term success depended on its ability to innovate, yet only 18 percent felt their approach was delivering a competitive advantage.

Closing this gap requires more than simply expecting foxes to introduce brilliant new ideas. Contrary to popular romantic belief that innovation depends on the outsider who rejects all convention, most creative ideas come from those who are immersed within their domain. Or, as Louis Pasteur eloquently remarked, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.”

Expertise is essentially the ability to impose mental patterns on routine activities so that domain tasks can be performed effectively and efficiently, similar to the chess master who can glance at a board and know the right move. However, there is a strong psychological pull to treat these patterns as fixed and impenetrable frameworks. This tendency, in turn, limits our capacity to mix expertise with insights gleaned from across time and space, which is required for true innovation. In other words, the hedgehog needs to lie down with the fox.

Fortunately, Berlin’s metaphor should be viewed as more of an individual predilection than a harsh dichotomy. In reality, to crib from Thomas Jefferson, “We are all foxes, we are all hedgehogs.” The problem is that despite the lip service paid to innovation, large organizations habitually reward and prize a hedgehog mindset. If we care about innovation, an affirmative action plan to cultivate our inner fox is urgently needed. A few recommendations:

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  Tools: There is an array of techniques that can help us break our mental patterns to facilitate creativity and innovation. Two excellent resources are Jacob Goldenberg and Drew Boyd’s “Inside the Box” that outlines what’s known as the “Systematic Inventive Thinking” methodology or William Duggan’s “Creative Strategy,” which describes the discipline of Strategic Intuition.

  Training: Gaining cross-sector (i.e. for-profit, non profit, and public) experience not only transforms perspectives, but is also an indispensable approach to solve the interlocking social challenges we face. A good place to start is the San Francisco-based Presidio Institute. The more adventurous can spend a year as an entrepreneur-in-residence with a governor, mayor, or social enterprise through the Fuse Corps.

  Teams: Like expertise, teams have a two-fold nature — groupthink and group homogeneity can be an innovation graveyard, yet, as the creativity scholar Keith Sawyer wrote, “Forget the myths about historical inventors; the truth is always a story of group genius.” First step: Follow Frans Johansson’s advice in “The Medici Effect” and create an “intersection” by building a diverse group of people from different disciplines, cultures, ethnicities, ages, and genders.

May all your mental menageries be varied and prosperous.

David Dabscheck is a visiting scholar at Columbia Business School focusing on innovation strategy and creativity. Follow him on Twitter @ddabscheck.