Hedgehog leaders are necessary for innovation

Hedgehog photo

Tom Duening, College of Business, Colorado Springs Business Journal

Baby Boomers have shown themselves to be loyal and reliable employees with excellent problem-solving skills - characteristics many companies and organizations desperately need.

Problem: I’ve tried a variety of innovation techniques, but none of them seem to drive sustained innovation. What can I do to encourage more innovation in my firm?

Despite extensive interest, sustained enterprise innovation remains elusive. In fact, in the United States, things appear to be getting worse. The U.S. fell to 11th in national innovation ranking according to the 2018 Bloomberg Innovation Index — out of the top 10 for the first time.

My research indicates that one of the primary reasons for this poor record is that innovation has been incorrectly perceived as an operational problem. Those tasked with solving operational problems seek a technique or set of techniques that provide a “the” solution. As of yet, no technique, set of metrics or particular innovation model has provided insights reliably to foster SEI.

SEI is better construed as an aspirational, rather than an operational, problem.

I use the metaphor of hedgehogs and foxes to communicate the essence of this research. The metaphor is drawn from Isaiah Berlin’s essay: “The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History.” Berlin wrote: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. … Taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general.”

I construe foxes as those who control enterprise operations and hedgehogs as those who drive enterprise aspirations, including SEI.

Hedgehogs continuously explore and develop the “One Big Thing” to which they are passionately committed. For example, Jeff Bezos’ OBT tells employees that at Amazon, “it is always Day 1.” In his 2017 letter to shareholders, he said:

“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1. An established company might harvest Day 2 for decades, but the final result would still come.”

Hedgehogs who are able to maintain their focus on an OBT may produce substantial reward for the enterprise. In his book “The Management Myth,” Matthew Stewart wrote about the discipline imposed by foxes obsessed with operational outcomes:

“I found a discipline that isn’t a discipline so much as a collection of unsolved problems and hidden agendas — where asking the right questions is much more important than finding the right answers, where issues are not resolved so much as temporarily placated, and where the biggest rewards go to those who can stay focused on the one big thing that really matters.”

Action items

Pre-established goals and metrics are commonly used to rationalize fox-style leadership. In contrast, the aspirational goals that hedgehogs pursue are not amenable to this type of rationality and must be bounded by different constraints. I’ve developed a set of specific governing virtues that serve as rational constraints for hedgehogs. Practicing these virtues will lead to greater levels of SEI:

Listen and look: Hedgehogs are active listeners. In fact, they become adept at listening to and synthesizing a wide range of perspectives. But hedgehogs don’t just listen; they also actively look for new information that may be leveraged in pursuit of the OBT. They are voracious knowledge consumers. Hedgehogs are eager to open doors for others and help them achieve greater professional satisfaction.

Open opportunities: The hedgehog, focused on pursuit of an OBT, realizes the best way to achieve that is by helping others develop and deploy their unique talents. The hedgehog provides the professional cover necessary for others less ambitious or courageous to discover the outer boundaries of their own talents. Hedgehogs are not just barrier removers, they are true opportunity creators.

Invite everyone: Hedgehogs must be willing to step back, confident that others will act to generate results consistent with the OBT. The hedgehog’s role is to articulate the OBT in terms that others can understand, appreciate and internalize.

Expect excellence: No one can be certain when an innovation breakthrough will result in new products or process improvements. Still, everyone involved in pursuing the OBT must be aware that, someday, their results will be measured against relevant performance indicators. Hedgehogs must run interference for the innovators to shield them from overzealous foxlike managers who may derail an innovation before its fruits are harvested.

Thomas Duening, Ph.D., is the El Pomar chairman for business & entrepreneurship, chairman of the management department and associate professor of management in the College of Business at UCCS. He is also an executive education instructor through the College’s Office of Professional & Executive Development. Duening is an educator, entrepreneur and author of 17 books. Contact him at OPED@uccs.edu.

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