Project Management

The Hedgehogs Strike Back

From the People, Planet, Profits & Projects Blog
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Although the title of this post might make you think this is some strange cross between Star Wars and the video game series by Sega, instead it’s a different sort of combination, mainly coming from a great NPR podcast called “Hidden Brain” by Shankar Vedantam and a book called Expert Political Judgement by Philip Tetlock. As a matter of fact, the title of this post is literally one of the chapters in Tetlock’s book.

The Hidden Brain podcast episode, which turns out to be about transgender surgery, starts off by mentioning a metaphor about the fox and the hedgehog, originated by Greek philosopher Archilochus and popularized by philosopher Isaac Berlin.  In the story – and the essay from Berlin, hedgehogs view the world through the lens of a single, powerful, overarching, defining idea – in their case, “DO NOT GET EATEN” – and do so by rolling up into a spine-covered ball, and foxes, who draw on a wide variety of tactics to hunt a variety of prey.

Foxes are flexible and clever and adaptable but often fail to ‘roll things up’ into single idea, and hedgehogs are steadfast and dependable and focused on a single end objective.

In a normal project management blog, we could talk (productively) about how a PM has to be both – a sort of Hedgefox – which, by the way, is a real thing in the book by Tenlock.

But no, this is no normal project management blog.  It’s about the intersection of PM and long-term thinking, PM and the triple bottom line, PM and sustainability.

So although a PM must be a fox in that he or she must be flexible and adaptable, and the PM must be a hedgehog in their focus on the end objective of the project, I am here to humbly and hedgehogly (an adjective I just invented) request that you add an additional dose of hedgehog to your PM genetic makeup. 

Why?  Here’s why.

If you focus on the end objectives of the project, you are correctly satisfying the stakeholders’ requirements and that’s great.  It’s what we do as PMs no matter what kind of animal we are.  But the project’s product (and by this I mean physical product or new service) in its steady state, has characteristics that differ from the product at its ‘ribbon-cutting ceremony’.  For example, a new factory may be ‘a success’, but if it produces pollutants into the local water table, it’s not really successful in the long term, is it?  As a PM, are you focused only on the ‘ribbon-cutting ceremony’?  How foxy of you.  But that’s not good enough, not by a longshot and certainly not in the long-term.  You need to have a single-minded idea of sustainability in your own PM planning toolbox.  Think as a hedgehog – with the big, overarching idea of long-lasting success, not just in social and ecological benefits but also in terms of economic success.   Is the ‘product of the project’ going to realize benefits for your organization for a long time?  If so, congratulations!  You have out-foxed the fox, or perhaps more properly stated, you have out-hedgehogged the fox. There, see? Now I invented a new verb!

One way to amp-up your inner hedgehog is to include sustainability-oriented statements in the project’s Charter and to carry that forward on your little spiky back to the Stakeholder and Risk Registers.  Have you considered stakeholders who will only come into the picture 3 years down the road?  Have you considered threats and opportunities that have to do with the operation of your project’s product, and not just the product itself?  These are little hedgehog tricks that can serve you (and your organization … and your planet) well.

NOTE: I highly recommend the Hidden Brain podcast for project managers, whether you are interested in sustainability or not.  The guests are interesting, the stories are assembled nicely, and most importantly, they make you think about the way you think about the way you think.


References and further reading:

If this idea intrigues your fox, hedgehog, or hedgefox brain, here are several other articles that take on the parable of the hedgehog and the fox and apply it to various business and project scenarios:

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: June 27, 2017 09:38 PM | Permalink

Comments (9)

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Great thoughts, and sometimes overlooked. I've seen projects pushed forward to have the end product collect dust. We could all use more hedgehoggedness in our PM thinking.

Thanks, @Liana. Yes. Think Keurig's original coffee maker. Great idea, great product, economic 'success', but 30 billion non-recyclable plastic cups in landfills? Not true to the company's mission statement, IMHO, and caused some brand damage.

Great article.

Oops! Maybe I think like a fox sometimes, but good to know we can be always be focused like the hedgehog. PMs have to be holistic in all processes.

Thank you.

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