In A Crisis, Look Further (Like a Fox!)

It seems a long time ago that we first heard of this ‘novel coronavirus’, and you might have hoped it would have run its course by now. But with Sydney going into lockdown to protect further spread, and a few leaks into other parts of Australia, it seems we have some time to go yet before we’re out of the woods.

These regular mini-crises create a lot of uncertainty, and it’s not easy to know how to plan ahead. Your future success depends on how well you manage things now, so you’re ready for a more stable future.

Are you a hedgehog or a fox?

In 1953, philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote a small but influential book, ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’, taking the title from the writings of the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus:

A fox knows many things; a hedgehog knows one important thing.

Berlin classified leaders as hedgehogs (who view the world through a single lens) or foxes (who have a more diverse range of ideas and techniques). He admitted that he didn’t intend his metaphor to be taken seriously, but it was simple and easy to share, so it spread rapidly in popular management circles!

There’s one specific application of this idea we can use right now: When hunted, a hedgehog does just one thing (curling up into a ball and lying still) while a fox uses many clever techniques to evade its hunters.

Act like a hedgehog and think like a fox.

In a crisis, should you be a hedgehog or a fox?

The answer: Do both!

By all means, protect yourself like a hedgehog, but if that’s the only thing you do, you’ll be overrun by external circumstances. On the other hand, if you’re constantly running, dodging, and hiding like a fox, it can be exhausting! Instead of choosing either of these extremes, do both: Act like a hedgehog and think like a fox.

Acting like a hedgehog means you understand the current reality, so do whatever it takes to survive in the short term. At the same time, think like a fox and look further ahead, so you’re flexible enough to accommodate change and thrive in the longer term.

Here are some ‘fox’ questions you can ask:

‘Will this matter [three months / six months / one year] from now?’

‘What will matter [three months / six months / one year] from now?’

‘What if the worst happened and the problem became even worse? How could we cope?’

‘What if the best happened (if this problem magically disappeared)?’

‘How would I advise somebody else to handle this problem?’

‘How would my hero (real or fictional) advise me to handle this problem?’

‘How are other teams in our organisation handling this problem?’

‘How are other organisations in our industry handling this problem?’

‘How are other industries handling this same kind of problem?’

‘How is this problem the best thing that’s ever happened to us?’

‘What would happen if we did this wild and crazy thing [X]?’

‘What would happen if we didn’t do this perfectly reasonable thing [Y]?’

In a crisis, many people naturally gravitate towards the hedgehog end of the spectrum. For a broader perspective, fight that natural tendency and consider the fox’s viewpoint as well.

If you’re fully immersed in a crisis, give it your full attention. But even in that crisis, take time to apply your fox brain. As you start moving out of crisis, take an 80/20 approach, giving 80% of your attention to the crisis, and allowing 20% for looking to recovery and growth. As the crisis recedes, gradually adjust the mix to increase the long-term fox strategies.


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