Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Good but not so Great

You may have come across the book Good to Great written by Jim Collins. It's part of the genre of management faddish books that was started by Tom Peters's with his In Search of Excellence. Their common theme is an in-depth research into companies that had been performing well, such work then being publicised in the authors' books which later received rave reviews. Lamentably, a few years later these companies turned out to be duds.

What's wrong with the approach taken by these authors? Mind you, some of them are respected management consultants who have taught at prestigious business schools. Are we teaching business leaders who are only good for the moment but leaving damaging legacies for the future generations, as exemplified by George W Bush, a typical product of such business schools? His leadership records speak volumes on the damage indirectly inflicted by the Harvard Business School on the Middle East.

What the business books (except those written by Peter Drucker) and the business schools badly suffer from is the inability to perceive the right patterns that differentiate the great from the not so great, i.e., the good. The authors did study the track records of the performing companies, no doubt, but the time frame that they used is so short so much so that whatever patterns that they perceive cannot withstand the test of time. These companies, by the way, are only recent creations; 100 years is too short. Hence, they are in no way good models for recognising patterns.

Take Jim Collins. He has used the analogy of the hedgehog and the fox to emphasise the benefits of focus as exemplified by the hedgehog. In his words, the hedgehog is 'a simple dowdy creature that knows one big thing and sticks to it.' Actually this characterisation of the human view of things can be traced to the ancient Greek poet, Archilocus. The hedgehog knows only big thing while the fox knows many things. This analogy was further elaborated by Sir Isaiah Berlin, a British philosopher to categorise thinkers and writers; hedgehogs are those who view the world through one big idea while foxes maintain several perspectives of the world depending on the prevailing conditions.

Hedgehogs see things in black and white. They are dogmatic with their one big thing and will overextend the applicability of that one big thing into areas much remote from its limited scope. Foxes, on the other hand, are pragmatic. They are not bound by one single idea and are amenable to changing their views. Foxes tap on their wide experiences to make an informed judgment.

It's not for nothing that the phrase 'cunning as a fox' or 'sly as a fox' came about. Fox, the animal, has a reputation for intelligence. It has a well developed sense of sight, smell and hearing. It can live in a wide range of habitats including living close to humans.

However, our infatuation with extreme focus has instead glorified the hedgehogs. With their narrow specialisation, they have become the experts, albeit dangerous ones at that because the public has allowed them to influence events and opinions. The Economist dated 18 July 2008 has the perfect definition of an expert: '... someone who knows about less and less until eventually, he knows everything about nothing.' It's time that we take control of our own decisions lest we be the slaves of some dubious 'experts'.

Prof Philip Tetlock of the University of California, Berkeley, has studied the accuracy of the experts' forecasts over 20 years, as documented in Expert Political Judgment. He has found their forecasts to be only slightly better than random guesses. It is our own fault that the 'experts' who see things in blacks and whites are the ones we clamour for. Remember George W. Bush's 'You're either with us, or against us' statement. Such a statement makes for great sound bites. In the real world, however, there are many grey areas with their complexities and nuances. In this regard, foxes make for better judges of events and issues.

I'm not arguing that we should all be foxes. Otherwise, we will succumb to the Western construct of black and white. We need hedgehogs for the short-term objectives of implementing things. But we need to mix the hedgehogs with the foxes. Down below in the organisation, there should be more hedgehogs. As we move up, the proportion of foxes should prevail. The main problem with most organisations is that the hedgehogs who have been good at running organisations in the past are still at the helm when the outside environment has changed drastically. They just are not able to adapt and are perplexed when their business models can no longer deliver the hoped for returns.

Am I for the hedgehog or the fox? Given the expected turn of events, I'm for neither. Not even the eagle, much beloved of many organisations and management writers. Mine is the ANT. I've got strong reasons for it and will be writing on it in the future.

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